It’s Veterans Day, an observance that shouldn’t require a reminder but is overshadowed by the commercialism that has grocery stockers replacing pumpkin-shaped peanut butter cups with red-and-green M&Ms before the stroke of midnight on Oct. 31.
As of Sept. 30, 2017, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said 6.8% of Illinois’ adult population are veterans, (nationally it’s 6.6%). That worked out to 628,254 people. Most were men (nearly 50,000 were women) and almost 52% of the total was 65 or older (the national average was 47.05%).
To serve that population there are four inpatient care sites housing more than 800. You might’ve heard of the Quincy home, source of a persistent Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that stained Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration, or the one in La Salle, where 62 residents (about 34%) and 69 employees had positive COVID-19 tests as of Friday.
A 200-bed Chicago facility, started in 2014, is done but unopened because of staffing issues. Once that facility is fully operational, it hopefully can be used as a model for renovations and updates at the older homes so geography doesn’t factor in access to top-level care.
The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs employs 1,250 people, according to the agency’s fiscal 2019 annual report. It spent $130 million. But not all the work costs the department money. There is an MIA/POW scholarship program covering full tuition at fees at state schools that processed 1,352 claims worth more than $3.48 million — all absorbed by college and university budgets.
The federal government manages the vast majority of veterans’ benefits, but in addition to the direct services the state agency supplies it is a valuable resource in navigating USDVA programs.
In fiscal 2019 veteran service officers “conducted 63,370 in person and 29,656 telephonic interviews and prepared 57,065 state and federal applications for eligible Illinois veterans, dependents, and survivors,” according to Director Linda Chapa LaVia, who added those contacts secured more than $104.4 million in new federal funding “of which $77 million will be annually recurring.”
The IDVA has some executive vacancies: assistant director, human resources manager, legislative liaison, chief information officer and senior home administrator, as of the report. Clearly the functions those officials would oversee still are carried out, but the openings raise the question of whether the state is fully committed to veterans service.
That said, the state’s veteran population is projected to decrease 2.69% annually from 2015 through 2045, according to the USDVA, owing largely to old age and relocation. As that happens, politicians will face the difficult task of downsizing the IDVA budget accordingly.
Veterans Day is an important observance, but adequately caring for these vital servants is a daily commitment — one our state hasn’t always honored.
• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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November 11, 2020 at 06:21AM