GT County Looks To Launch Mobile VA Office To Bring Help Directly To Veterans
By Beth Milligan | May 5, 2021
The Grand Traverse County Veterans Affairs (VA) Office is responsible for nearly 6,300 veterans and their dependents in the county, with roughly 250-300 clients coming through the VA office each month during non-pandemic times. COVID-19 has slashed that number by more than half, however, with fewer than 100 clients visiting the now appointment-only office and many older veterans struggling with virtual appointment technology. Now the VA wants to try a new approach: launching a mobile office that will go directly to veterans instead of the other way around, including those who are homebound or lack transportation.
VA Director Michael Roof will seek county commission approval today (Wednesday) to spend up to $150,000 to purchase a mobile service unit for the department. Ohio-based Farber Specialty Vehicles manufactures the vehicles, which are typically equipped with a generator, canopy, flood lights, and a complete office setup with WiFi, computers, printers, and scanners that allows staff to handle client appointments remotely. “It’s completely outfitted to have someone come in, walk in the (vehicle) side door, and do claims right there and then on the laptop,” Roof said during an April 7 department update to commissioners.
Roof said the pandemic has exacerbated challenges the VA already faced in reaching veterans in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties – the latter of which contracts with Grand Traverse County for services – to ensure they receive their rightful benefits owed for serving the country. Veterans were used to just dropping in at the VA office on LaFranier Road when they needed assistance, Roof said, but county buildings now being open only by appointment has "kind of crippled us,” he told commissioners.
Because the average age of veterans seeking assistance is 65 and over, many aren’t comfortable with Zoom or Google Meet – though the VA does offer virtual appointments – with some veterans ultimately giving up on appointments. The VA has also been forced to halt all outreach events during the pandemic, instead relying solely on billboard/radio/TV advertising to try and inform veterans about available services, Roof said. Yet another contingency of veterans are homebound or lack transportation; even during non-pandemic times, connecting those individuals with assistance can be challenging. Roof says a mobile unit – which VA departments in other counties have deployed successfully to bring assistance directly to veterans – can help the department expand its reach on all of the above fronts.
“DAV (Disabled Americans Veterans) National used to have a program where they would pull into a town once a year and meet with the veterans where they’re at,” Roof tells The Ticker. “We want to do this like an every-day thing. Sometimes people don’t want to come into an office. With this we can set up at fairs, township offices, in downtowns, so we’re raising awareness of our office and what’s available for veterans.” Roof says the mobile unit could be out in the field two to three days per week, using a combination of an open office format – where someone walking by could pop in and ask about benefits or services – as well as scheduled appointments.
The VA has the full $150,000 available to pay for the mobile office in its fund balance – though Roof is hopeful state grants will help offset some of the county’s costs. Farber Specialty Vehicles only requires a 40 percent down payment to begin the six-month process of outfitting a mobile office unit, so Roof is proposing to pay $50,000 down and seek the other $90,000 in state grants over the next several months. Roof expresses confidence the grant funding – which the VA typically receives each year for outreach efforts – will be available this fall, but says the VA can cover costs either way. The local VA Administrative Committee, which oversees the department, has already voted to authorize the mobile office purchase; approval from county commissioners is the last step needed to move forward.
Assuming commissioners sign off, the mobile unit could be delivered to the VA and put into the field for outreach to Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians locations by late fall. Roof told commissioners last month that the state is also interested in exploring a pilot partnership with Grand Traverse County using the mobile office that would allow the VA to travel and offer services for other veterans in the wider northern Michigan region (discussions are still in the early stages, Roof tells The Ticker). Roof’s hopeful the mobile unit will reach significantly more veterans and help offset Michigan’s lagging numbers when it comes to veteran care: The state is 45th when it comes to VA-expended funds and 41st when it comes to veteran compensation and pensions per capita, he says.
“It's not my money,” Roof told commissioners of the taxpayer and millage funding supporting local veteran care, “but I want to do the best I can with it.”Comment