Massachusetts veterans and their dependents appear to be forfeiting hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual state benefits because some municipal officials who serve veterans are unaware of available aid, not working state-mandated hours, or not trying hard enough to locate retired service members, state officials say.
As a result, officials said, thousands of financially struggling veterans might not be receiving cash payments and medical reimbursements they are entitled to get.
Twenty-three communities have no veterans agent or do not employ a full-time officer, as required by law. A total of 177 cities and towns failed to meet the state’s Sept. 1 deadline to document the status of their veterans agents, according to officials.
“It bothers this entire department that there are people out there who aren’t taking advantage only because they are not aware,’’ said Coleman Nee, secretary of the state Department of Veterans’ Services.
State authorities say they are encountering resistance to hiring veterans agents from some cities and towns that are already straining to make ends meet. Although the state covers 75 percent of the cost of the benefits, municipalities must cover the balance. The Medfield town administrator spoke wryly of “civil disobedience’’ by simply ignoring state law, when discussing the mandate with local officials.
“Frankly, towns have gotten away with murder for years,’’ said Richie Girard, 44, the veterans agent in Agawam. “Some veterans agents find they get nervous if they have to keep extending their budget, because they might get pressure from the top. Some guys are actually afraid for their jobs.’’
To address the problem, the state has launched an unprecedented effort to bring all 351 cities and towns into compliance with a state law that dates to the Civil War and requires a veterans service officer for each community.
The compliance effort has taken on urgency, Nee said, because the swelling needs of the state’s 385,000 veterans have reached “the most critical time for us.’’
The vast majority of veterans served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, and many are well over 60 and in need of attention for everything from long-term care and elder services to filing disability claims related to Agent Orange exposure, Nee said. At the same time, tens of thousands of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq are returning home.
In Medfield, where the population has inched above 12,000, the part-time agent has a caseload of two.
“I think what we’re doing right now is going to provide a better level of service than if we put a full-time person down there reading comic books, because what else are they going to do?’’ Michael Sullivan, the town administrator in Medfield, said at an Aug. 2 meeting with selectmen.
Nee, however, said he is determined to seek compliance. State veterans officials, although acknowledging that comparisons between individual communities are difficult, estimated there is one low-income veteran needing help for every 1,000 residents.
“These benefits already have been earned,’’ Nee said. “You have to make a commitment to this law and the services it provides. It’s not a ceremonial position.’’
Under a state law enacted in 1972, communities with more than 12,000 residents must have a full-time agent to inform veterans about their benefits and help them navigate government agencies and prepare documentation for assistance.
Towns with a population under 12,000 must have a part-time veterans officer. However, communities are free to pursue regional partnerships.
For a single veteran with a monthly income under $1,815, cash assistance can reach $1,595 a month. State medical benefits can cover copayments for insurance and prescription drugs and for items such as hearing aids and eyeglasses. The US Department of Veterans Affairs waives copayments at its medical centers only for veterans with a service-connected disability.
Many younger veterans are unaware of their benefits, officials said. One Iraq veteran, a 26-year-old Army Reserve sergeant, showed up at Hingham Town Hall last winter, looking for help.
Terrance Low was unemployed, penniless, and had used his last drop of heating oil. When veterans agent Keith Jermyn accompanied Low to his home, the temperature inside was 29 degrees.
Jermyn arranged for an emergency shipment of oil, helped Low apply for cash assistance, and peppered him with notices about job fairs. Today, Low has a full-time warehouse job and an optimistic outlook.
Without the help of a veterans agent, Low said, “I don’t think I’d be in this house. Odds are I wouldn’t have the job I have right now. I don’t think there’s a way to repay the guy.’’
Currently, 8,200 low-income veterans or dependents receive aid, but more than double that number might qualify, Nee said. In fiscal 2011, the state disbursed $33.6 million in low-income benefits and $19.5 million in annuities, according to the Veterans’ Services Department.
In addition to aid for the needy, the state offers a range of benefits including “Welcome Home’’ bonuses and tuition waivers. There are also annuities for veterans with a 100 percent service-connected disability and for parents and single spouses of service members who died while on active duty.
Many veterans officers work diligently, Nee and several local agents said. But glaring disparities exist among communities of similar size and income.
In Hingham, an affluent community of 22,157, the town handled 35 low-income cases in fiscal 2011 and dispensed $183,173, of which $134,827 was reimbursed.
But in Sharon, an affluent town of 17,612, the caseload that same year consisted of one person; the town’s total expense for financial and medical assistance was $583, with $437 reimbursed by the state.
Sharon’s veterans agent, Paul Bergeron, retired from the Army in 1984 and has held the position ever since. Bergeron is paid $13,000 for a full-time job, he said, and holds office hours from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
At other times, Bergeron said, he can be reached by his “point of contact’’ at the town offices, a clerk paid by the accounting department who calls him if a veteran shows up. The town website does not list the veterans agent or his contact information in its directory of departments.
When asked how a town with an estimated 3,000 veterans can have a caseload of only one, Bergeron replied: “I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t.’’
Town Administrator Benjamin Puritz speculated that demographics might hold part of the answer. “Sharon is welcoming and diverse and egalitarian,’’ Puritz said. “But from a strict economic point of view, it’s in the top 10 percent per capita in the state.’’
In Lexington, where the American Revolution began, the agent is part time, even though its population of 32,525 is more than twice the trigger for a full-time worker.
Town Administrator Carl Valente said the caseload of 10 low-income veterans and dependents is handled through a team approach, using the veterans service officer and municipal social workers.
“The law was written years and years ago and really didn’t contemplate a more modern way to provide these services to veterans,’’ Valente said. “We really look at how do you provide these services, not how you staff it.’’
For Michael Sweeney, veterans agent in Lynn and president of the Massachusetts Veterans Service Officers Association, respect for the job is key to success.
“A lot of communities think that ceremonies and parades, which are incredibly important to the fabric of the community, are the extent of their obligation,’’ Sweeney said. “But, really, it’s only the beginning.’’
MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.