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		    NEW YORK JOINT STATE SENATE AND ASSEMBLY



      SENATE STANDING COMMITTEE ON VETERANS,
       HOMELAND SECURITY & MILITARY AFFAIRS
ASSEMBLY STANDING COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
     ASSEMBLY SUBCOMMITTEE ON WOMEN VETERANS




                 PUBLIC HEARING

 THE IMPACTS OF COVID-19 ON NEW YORK'S VETERANS




                Virtual Hearing

                August 14, 2020

             10:30 a.m. - 3:39 p.m.
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Joint Hearing, Impacts of COVID on Veterans,08/14/2020

 SENATORS PRESENT:

 SENATOR JOHN BROOKS
 Chair, Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Homeland
 Security & Military Affairs

 SENATOR JOHN LIU

 SENATOR JEN METZGER

 SENATOR PETE HARCKHAM

 SENATOR GEORGE BORELLO

 SENATOR DAPHNE JORDAN

 SENATOR JAMES GAUGHRAN

 SENATOR PATTY RITCHIE

 SENATOR SUE SERINO

 ASSEMBLY MEMBERS PRESENT:

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER DIDI BARRETT
 Chair, Assembly Standing Committee on Veterans' Affairs

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER PAMELA HUNTER
 Chair, Assembly Subcommittee on Women Veterans

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER BILLY JONES

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER MARIANNE BUTTENSCHON

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER MICHAEL CUSICK

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER BRIAN MANKTELOW

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER JAKE ASHBY

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER STACEY PHEFFER AMATO

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER MONICA WALLACE

 ASSEMBLY MEMBER ANGELO SANTABARBARA




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                                    INDEX


                                                                       Page
 PANEL 1

 Command Sgt. Major Gary Flaherty                                        17
      Executive Director
      Columbia County Veterans Service Agency

 Honorable Ronald C. Tocci                                               24
      Commissioner
      Westchester County Veterans Service Agency

 Jason Skinner                                                           31
      Executive Director
      New York State County Veteran Service Officer
      Association

 Daniel Griffin                                                          38
      Vice President
      NYS Veterans Nursing Home Board of Visitors

 Thomas Ronayne                                                          41
      Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency


 PANEL 2

 Coco Culhane                                                           100
      Executive Director
      Veterans Advocacy Project

 Solomon Chouicha                                                       106
      Staff Attorney
      Legal Services of the Hudson Valley

 Dao Sun                                                                110
      Senior Staff Attorney
      Legal Services New York City




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                                                                       Page
 PANEL 3

 J. Michael Haynie                                                      129
      Vice Chancellor of Strategic Initiatives
      and Innovation
      Syracuse University, Institute For
      Veterans and Military Families

 Staff Sergeant (Ret) James Fitzgerald                                  134
      Executive Director
      NYC Veterans Alliance

 Ashton Stewart                                                         141
      Manager
      SAGE Veterans Program

 Laura Stradley                                                         146
      Executive Director
      Veterans Outreach Center

 PANEL 4

 Benjamin Pomerance                                                     181
      Deputy Director for Program Development
      & Learning
      NYS Division of Veterans' Services


 PANEL 5

 CMSgt (Ret) Marcelle Leis                                              222
      Director of Veterans Services
      Association for Mental Health and Wellness

 Alexander J. Behm                                                      228
      Executive Director
      Clear Path For Veterans

 Eva Usadi                                                              233
      Executive Director
      Trauma and Resiliency Resources, Inc.

 Aaron Leonard                                                          238
      Campaign Representative
      Sierra Club Military Outdoors




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 Kirby Hannan                                                           244
      Legislative Advocate
      New York State Veterans Council

 PANEL 6

 Meghan Brooks                                                          267
      Staff Attorney
      New York Legal Assistance Group

 Logan Campbell                                                         272
      Project Coordinator
      City Bar Justice Center's Veterans
      Assistance Project

 Peter Kempner                                                          276
      Legal Director & Elderly Project
      Director
      Volunteers of Legal Service




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2                     (The public hearing commenced at 10:30

3         A.M.)

4                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER DIDI BARRETT, CHAIR,

5         ASSEMBLY STANDING COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS:

6         Senator, you can begin if you like.

7                     SENATOR JOHN BROOKS, CHAIR, SENATE

8         STANDING COMMITTEE ON VETERANS, HOMELAND SECURITY

9         & MILITARY AFFAIRS:              Oh, okay, I thought it was

10        going the other way.              Good morning, everyone and

11        thank you for joining us in this, I believe, very

12        important hearing.             As we all know the COVID-19

13        virus has challenged our state and our community

14        in many, many ways.              This morning we will be

15        listening to testimony and information from many

16        people across the state who are actively involved

17        in providing systems and services to our veteran

18        community.       Hopefully, at the close of the day

19        we'll have a good set of ideas of new programs

20        and problems that we want to address to help this

21        community.       I'll make my remarks very brief

22        because we do have a lot of witnesses today and

23        move it along, but I do thank everyone for

24        joining us today.            Didi, I'm not sure how we want



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2         to do this; we want to go back and forth or you

3         want the ranker to follow the chair on each side?

4                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    No, I think

5         I'd like to speak and then have Pam Hunter speak

6         and then I think we can go to our rankers.

7                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, very good.             So

8         I'll turn it over to Didi Barrett.                       Again, thank

9         you for everybody who is joining us today.

10                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    Thank you,

11        Senator.     Good morning and I just would like us

12        all to begin with a moment of silence to remember

13        the veterans who served our nation and for those

14        who we lost during this pandemic and the other --

15        going on these last months that we've -- since we

16        last met.      So let's pause for a moment.                       Thank

17        you all.     I've been very proud to serve as chair

18        of the New York State Assembly Veteran's

19        Committee.      Over these past months I've made it

20        my mission to connect with veterans and veterans

21        advocates throughout the state to check in and to

22        drop off hand sanitizer and to listen to the

23        stories that people have shared.                      And from I've

24        heard the veteran's community has taken a lot of



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2         hits over these last months from losing some of

3         our last remaining World War II veterans and

4         veterans in other nursing homes to the depression

5         and relapse that comes from isolation and

6         loneliness to the shuttered American Legion Posts

7         and VFW Posts that are so much part of many of

8         our communities.

9                    Currently, we're even experiencing a

10        threat to the U.S. Post Office, which is really

11        one of the largest employers of veterans and

12        veteran's families in the country and so many of

13        our veterans depend on the post office for

14        prescriptions and medications.                    And so even now

15        we're, we're, our veteran's communities are kind

16        of under target and we need to ensure that

17        veterans have a funded and functioning U.S. Post

18        Office going forward.              I want to appreciate, I

19        want to thank all of you who are with us today

20        and I really appreciate everyone making an effort

21        to be part of this.             I want to thank the assembly

22        and the senate staffs who did a great job pulling

23        this hearing together.               It was important to me

24        that we have a special hearing and I know that



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2         Senator Brooks shares my feelings about this to

3         specifically address the impact of this pandemic

4         on our veterans and our military families, and as

5         he said we have a wide ranging group of people

6         testifying, veterans and non-veterans, including

7         as we will see a former chair of this committee

8         who even has continued in retirement to work with

9         veterans, and that's Ron Tocci who is on the

10        first panel.

11                   I look forward to hearing from each and

12        every one of you scheduled and before doing I've

13        been asked to read these housekeeping rules, so I

14        will do that for those testifying.                       Please don't

15        read your testimony, we will be reading all of

16        that submitted.          You will need a photo ID for

17        registration purposes that you'll show to the

18        moderator in the waiting room.                    You'll receive

19        the link to the hearing room via the Zoom chat

20        function in the waiting room when two panels

21        before your panel is testifying.                      When it is time

22        for your panel to testify you will need to turn

23        on your audio and video.                Because of the interest

24        in this topic we've asked each speaker to limit



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2         their remarks to five minutes.                     In our

3         questioning the chairs will have five minutes and

4         other members of the committees will have three

5         to ask questions.            There's a countdown clock to

6         help us keep trach of that in the Zoom gallery

7         view.    When the light is green you begin to

8         speak, when the light turns yellow you have one

9         minute left and that means it's time to wrap up

10        your testimony.           After the five minutes the light

11        will turn red and it will be our turn to ask the

12        questions.       Please keep your video on and use the

13        gallery view.         You will remain muted and your

14        video will be off until it's your turn to testify

15        and you'll be muted again once all the questions

16        have been asked and answered.                     We also ask that

17        you mute cell phones during the hearing.

18                    As a reminder to those who may be

19        watching, but are not scheduled to testify please

20        be aware that you can submit written testimony to

21        the e-mail address on the original hearing notice

22        within 10 days and that will be included, and

23        with that I'm pleased to turn it over to my

24        colleague, Assemblywoman Pam Hunter, Chair of the



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2         Assembly Subcommittee on women veterans.

3                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER PAMELA HUNTER, CHAIR,

4         ASSEMBLY SUBCOMMITTEE ON WOMEN VETERANS:                          Good

5         morning, it's a pleasure to be here in this

6         morning with all of you and to be able to

7         participate in this very important panel

8         discussion, the hearing relative to COVID and

9         veterans.      You know, as a veteran myself and

10        participating I try weekly with my American

11        Legion Post, it definitely gives me a point of

12        view relative to the effects COVID has had on

13        veterans especially the toxins that a lot of

14        veterans have been affected by and very, very

15        concerned relative to these presumptive

16        conditions, autoimmune conditions that people

17        have faced with Agent Orange and what we're going

18        to do relative to COVID.                I would like to be able

19        to hear testimony about that today relative to

20        the veteran homes; very concerned about our

21        veterans who are living in these elder care

22        facilities and wanting to make sure that all

23        precautions are taken to protect those folks who

24        are living in these homes.                  You know, PTSD and



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2         other kind of socialization situations for

3         veterans where they have not been able to get

4         together like they may have been able to in the

5         past has definitely been a huge effect.

6                    So we have a great panel of folks here

7         today to give testimony about what's really

8         happening with veterans, definitely been under

9         discussed.      We've had conversations about help,

10        you know, nursing homes in general had

11        conversations relative to the effects of COVID

12        for, you know, in communities of color, but you

13        know, the affects that COVID has on veterans is

14        significant and vast and very under discussed and

15        it's a pleasure to be able to participate this

16        morning and I'd like to be able to walk away from

17        this hearing today with actionable items that we

18        can address to be able to help veterans going

19        forward, especially, you know, with the talk of a

20        second wave of COVID coming; so thank you.

21                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

22        senator.

23                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, it's my pleasure

24        to introduce the ranking member of our committee,



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2         Patty Ritchie, Senator Patty Ritchie for a few

3         words.

4                      SENATOR PATTY RITCHIE:                   Thank you

5         Senator Brooks and I'd like to start off by

6         thanking the chairs for the opportunity to hear

7         the issues today and Senator Brooks, as always, I

8         appreciate working with you on so many issues

9         that are important to our military.                          I will say

10        that this is important to my district especially

11        this committee because I have the privilege of

12        representing the 10th Mountain Division and not

13        only do I represent active duty soldiers and

14        families, a number of military personnel from

15        Fort Drum retire and are living in the community

16        now; so many of these issues are really important

17        to my district.            For the record, though, several

18        of the issues that I have been waiting to ask

19        when I look at the witnesses list I don't see

20        anyone who technically is going to be able to

21        answer those.          Unfortunately, I don't see anyone

22        from Fort Drum on there or the Division of

23        Military or Naval Affairs, and I can say for the

24        record I have received many calls from active



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2         duty military, National Guard with regards to the

3         quarantine and coming home to visit their family

4         or being able to go to a hospital with a loved

5         one when they're having surgery.                       So that is

6         something that I hope after this hearing we'll be

7         able to work together to get the answers from

8         that.    And also this past week I have been on a

9         number of hearings with regards to hospitals and

10        nursing homes and I saved my questions for the

11        Department of Health to ask about the state

12        veteran's nursing home, but unfortunately the

13        commissioner is not here today to answer those.

14        So I would appreciate the chairs working with me

15        to see if we couldn't get some of those answers

16        later on.       With that, once again thank you for

17        holding the hearing because like I said this is

18        very important to my district.

19                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     And I would

20        like to introduce our ranker, a veteran himself,

21        Jake Ashby.

22                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER JAKE ASHBY:                       Thank you,

23        Madam Chair.         Thank you to the chairs and my

24        fellow ranker on the senate side and all the



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2         participants here today.                Most of all I want to

3         thank the veterans who are here.                      I know many of

4         those who are testifying are veterans themselves.

5         Thank you for continuing to do what you're doing

6         through this time.            I can't imagine the job right

7         now and what you're facing and the uphill battle

8         that it is, but I look forward to hearing about

9         that struggle and trying our best to figure out

10        the best way forward, but again, I just, I want

11        to be clear in how grateful I am to the veterans

12        that are continuing to serve in this capacity of

13        reaching out to their brothers and sisters and

14        doing all they can to help them, you know, during

15        this time.

16                   I'd also like to echo a little bit of my

17        colleague in the senate in her disappointment and

18        the absence of some people on the witness list,

19        in particular, those who are in the nursing home

20        industry on the state side, for a state better.

21        It would have been great to hear from them today.

22        I know that we all had many questions for them,

23        hopefully, we can work together to get some

24        answers on that end as well, but I want to take



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2         this opportunity to say thank you all of you and

3         I look forward to hearing the testimony.

4                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you

5         assemblyman, before I hand it back to Senator

6         Brooks I just would like to say I to share in

7         your disappointment.             We invited the directors of

8         the leadership in all, of all five of the

9         veteran's nursing homes, they all turned us down

10        and asked, you know, just basically said no.                          We

11        also, I understand had asked for somebody from

12        Fort Drum and I don't know how that got lost in

13        the shuffle, but somehow I understand that that

14        name was never given to the staff that was

15        organizing this.           But we do have an outstanding

16        series of witnesses and I think a lot of these

17        issues, if not from specifically inside I think

18        will be addressed and I really appreciate again

19        everyone who has made the effort to be here and

20        talk with us today and to the veterans.                           Thank

21        you, again, for your service and for the

22        continuing work that you do to make our state and

23        our country a better and safer place.                         So Senator

24        Brooks, would you like to lead off here?



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2                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you and I

3         guess just to echo the remarks.                     I think we all

4         recognize there are a number of individuals for

5         one reason or another that are not here today.                          I

6         think we have to look at this hearing as a first

7         step on a journey to address the concerns of our

8         veterans, both associated with this virus and in

9         other areas.        So I think today we're going to

10        hear from outstanding witnesses and begin to, to

11        build the catalog, if you will, of issues that

12        we're going to address in the, in the coming

13        session.     So I believe we should start with the

14        sergeant, the Command Sgt. Major Flaherty and

15        Command Sgt. Major, we welcome you.

16                   COMMAND SGT. MAJOR GARY FLAHERTY,

17        EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COLUMBIA COUNTY VETERANS

18        SERVICE AGENCY:          Good morning, everybody.                 I'd

19        like to thank everybody for the opportunity to

20        come forward and talk about what we're doing at

21        the ground level to support our veterans.                         I must

22        say up front that there's no question that all my

23        years in the military I was committed to taking

24        care of my troops and hopefully, for the rest of



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2         my life I'll be able to take care of our

3         veterans.      In taking of them during this crisis

4         with COVID, it's no different than what I was

5         doing prior to the COVID and that is making sure

6         we communicate with our veterans, and I'm sure

7         that most of you are aware if not all of it, the

8         importance of communicating with the veterans

9         during this time it's and particularly our

10        veterans that are more vulnerable than others

11        than the general population based on their combat

12        experiences.        And in particular our Vietnam Vets

13        I find, and being one myself, it's, it was

14        actually critical to stay in communication with

15        the ones who have PTSD and in the case of Vietnam

16        Vets, the serious diseases related to their

17        exposure Agent Orange, which make them and I

18        vulnerable in situations such as heart disease,

19        diabetes, over 17 different cancers.

20                    And from the very beginning I think the

21        success we've had in Columbia County has been the

22        fact that us staying in communications each

23        Sunday since the very beginning of this, I've

24        called all my veterans, widows and families on a



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2         repeated basis to make sure that they're okay.

3         And as a result of that I've only had one

4         veteran, the first Sunday that I called he was

5         contemplated suicide and was actually delighted

6         that he, had received a call and stayed on the

7         phone with me for over an hour.                     Subsequent to

8         that I got him into the VA treatment programs and

9         as I check on him every week he's doing much

10        better and doing extremely well.

11                   The other two incidents I've had in

12        Columbia County with the result of domestic

13        violence, and both of those cases were handled

14        locally.     One we ended up admitting to the VA and

15        in checking with him he's doing very well also.

16        One of the issues that we have is we're a PFC

17        Dwyer Program in Columbia County and that program

18        has been very instrumental in us carrying forward

19        and communicating not only between myself and the

20        veterans, but our peer to peer program has been

21        very successful.           We ended up making house calls,

22        delivering food packages to veterans that were

23        locked in and the issue with the PFC Dwyer

24        Program is limited to certain counties in the



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2         state and we've been so successful with it that

3         it would be very instrumental and very good for

4         us to expand the program statewide.                        The other

5         issue is the restrictions that we have on funding

6         not only our county funding and [unintelligible]

7         [00:17:00] localities that has not come in, but

8         continue the funding for the PFC Dwyer Program.

9                    Tomorrow I'm very happy to report that

10        we'll be opening a day room, a military style day

11        room down below my office to have veterans come

12        in and interact with each other, get back into

13        the community and, therefore, we'll be able to

14        stay in touch with them.                We have nobody in the

15        nursing home program so I can't speak to that,

16        but I'm anxious to hear more about it.                            I do have

17        veterans that are in their normal community

18        nursing homes and one of them's mother was

19        transported downstate and he became extremely

20        agitated and came to me saying it wasn't, I

21        wasn't even aware that she had been transported,

22        and she was transported down during the night.

23        So that was one incident that we had.

24                   I thank you all, I know my time went



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2         running down, but my commitment is to stay in

3         touch, communicate and I think that's the answer

4         that we have to do to make sure our veterans are

5         not only medically, but psychology taken care of.

6         Again, I thank everybody and I'm open to any

7         questions you have.

8                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you --

9                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay --

10                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Go ahead.

11                    SENATOR BROOKS:              -- we thank you very

12        much.    I think all of us collectively recognize

13        the outstanding results in the Dwyer Program.

14        We've been able to add additional funds each of

15        the last three years and I think we all agree

16        that it's a program that should be taken

17        statewide and I know there's an effort actually

18        to make the program national.                     So there is

19        widespread recognition of just an outstanding

20        program and the fact that that is a peer to peer

21        program really adds to, I think the success of

22        the program.         As we gather today, a lot of our

23        concentration is on the area of the virus itself

24        and we recognize that there's different programs



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2         available on different communities and some do

3         and don't have the hospitals be a part of the

4         State University system, hospital system or the

5         independent programs.              Did you in your area see a

6         significant change in activity or reduction in

7         worthwhile programs as a result of the virus?

8                    CMSGT MAJOR FLAHERTY:                   I haven't seen

9         that at this point, sir.                I stay in touch with

10        our leadership and the support we get from our

11        county and from the state is very effective.                        I,

12        as I said in the beginning I'm totally committed

13        to taking care of our veterans and as of last

14        Sunday, I completed 437 calls to the veterans.

15        Some, many of them repeated calls talking also to

16        widows.    During the beginning of the virus I had

17        eight Vietnam Vets die.               One of the issues with

18        the restrictions, I had one veteran die early

19        March and we couldn't get honors for him until

20        two weeks ago.         So the funeral home had to hold

21        him until we could bury him with honors.

22                   SENATOR BROOKS:              You know, and I share

23        with you the concerns we have with the Vietnam

24        Veterans in particular with Agent Orange related



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2         issues.     So, you know, we've got to keep our

3         antennas out on some of this, but again, today

4         we're concentrating on the virus, but we also

5         have to be looking at the other many issues that

6         are out there.          Just a question associated with

7         the virus and the closing of business operations,

8         did you see any problems in your area with

9         employment of veterans?

10                    CMDSGT MAJOR FLAHERTY:                   No sir.       I had,

11        the only problem I've had is a couple of the

12        businesses have complained that they had people

13        that, they couldn't get back to work because they

14        were making too much money staying at home.

15        That's the only complaint I've had.

16                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Didi, I'll give you an

17        opportunity to ask some questions.

18                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Okay, I'm

19        going to, I think the, the, I'm getting a text

20        here that they want to do the panel as a whole.

21        So what I would like us to do then is move onto

22        the other panelist and then let me come back and

23        ask questions of Gary and the others at that

24        time.    But I just want to say since, since Gary



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2         Flaherty is just an absolutely stellar public

3         servant in our, in my, one of the counties I

4         represent I just want to thank you for all you're

5         doing and what you've always done and look

6         forward to working with you on the board Dwyer

7         funding because that's important to me as well.

8                     CMDSGT MAJOR FLAHERTY:                   Thank you very

9         much.

10                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     So I think the

11        next speaker is Ron Tocci.                   Should we go to Ron

12        and let's go through the panel first and then

13        we'll have questions afterward?

14                    HONORABLE RONALD C. TOCCI, COMMISSIONER,

15        WESTCHESTER COUNTY VETERANS SERVICE AGENCY:

16        Thank you, Madam Chair and Chairman Brooks, I

17        want to first thank you and your co-chairs and

18        all those are participating that made this a

19        priority in, at a time when it's so difficult and

20        chaotic throughout our country for you to take

21        the time out.         I know you're in budget mode and

22        so on and so forth, this is extremely gratifying

23        to the veteran community.                  If I could digress

24        just for a couple moments, for those that are



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2         listening, those that will read and learn about

3         what we talked about today they should understand

4         that in our country of 350 million people we have

5         less than one-half of one percent that are

6         serving our mili-, our country in the military

7         and I think that's remarkable that we have those

8         kind of special people.               So what you're doing is

9         certainly admirable because there's no greater

10        priority than to take care of those people who

11        take care of us.

12                   So with that said I have a couple of

13        things that might be of interest.                       I for many,

14        many years was privileged to serve in the

15        capacity that you are now and I learned so much

16        from so many of the special people who I helped

17        in many different ways and worked with me to do

18        some good things.           First of all, I think that we

19        should all understand the delivery of services,

20        excuse me, has been radically challenged.                         Where

21        we in our county at Westchester where we have a

22        million people, obviously a fairly good sized

23        veteran population, we do not do any personal,

24        one on one services.             We've transferred to iPads



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2         and Smartphones and all kind of

3         telecommunication, but the county executive, our

4         county executive, George Lattimer, has insured

5         that everybody be taken care of without

6         interruption.        So we have not missed a beat in

7         terms of filing claims, answering phone calls on

8         a daily basis and performing all the services

9         that veterans service offices normally do.

10                   With that said, it's been very, very

11        difficult because you try to get through to the

12        VA, if we're filing a claim it may be that some

13        of our service officers will be on the phone on

14        hold for an hour or two, maybe longer, and I'm

15        sure that the Sgt. Major understands that as he

16        testified too.         But we're doing that and that's

17        one of the things that has made it very

18        difficult, but while I'm talking about that I

19        think it's very important to understand the value

20        of our service officers particularly those people

21        that processed the claims.                  There has been a

22        state funding program since the Korean War and

23        the formula was based on population of counties,

24        not on veteran population.                  We've advocated for



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2         years that that formula should be changed.

3         There's a minimal amount of money, just to give

4         you an idea.        Westchester County, a million

5         people, we get about $35,000 back every year to

6         fund our veteran service agency.                      Whether we get

7         it or not makes no difference, we have to do that

8         anyway.

9                     We had suggested a formula change based

10        on the delivery of service and the number of

11        contacts, number of claims filed and so on and so

12        forth, with a dollar amount attached to each one

13        of those services, and it would be a lot more

14        money to those people who provide a number of

15        services to the veterans with a minimal amount of

16        money so there would be no loss, you'd be held

17        harmless.      The smaller counties, upstate in

18        particular, would continue to get the amount of

19        money they get now and if they can prove that

20        they've done more for services to veterans, they

21        would get more money.              And just to give you

22        another example, I did a survey one time of the

23        state money that went for veteran's services

24        throughout the State of New York and this has



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2         gone back over 20 years ago and it amounted to

3         less than $5.00 per veteran per year.                         Now

4         there's a lot of money that comes from the Feds

5         that goes through our Department of Labor, but

6         that is not state money and in a year where we

7         have a budget that's approaching $190 billion

8         dollars I do believe that most people would agree

9         that veterans are worth a heck of a lot more than

10        what they're getting back.

11                    So I'm not blaming anybody.                      I

12        understand how difficult it is to get through our

13        finance ways and means committees, any kind of

14        increases for services, but I would think that

15        everyone if you talk to people on the street

16        would agree that there should be at least a

17        commensurate amount of money for the services

18        provided to our veteran community.                       So I would

19        hope that we could effectuate a change in the

20        formula in the policy of how we, we do fund those

21        services.      I would also like to talk about the

22        fact that we had a real problem with gaining

23        access and admission for veterans and their

24        spouses in a state veteran nursing homes.                           The



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2         policy initially established and I'm not blaming

3         anybody, was probably done in good faith, but

4         after the debacle where we had people with COVID

5         admitted into the nursing homes that infected a

6         lot of the other veterans, the policy was changed

7         that nobody was admitted.                 And I had veterans who

8         were in need of veteran nursing care that could

9         not get in and their spouses, which are also

10        eligible according to our state policy for

11        admission into our state veteran homes, could not

12        go in either.        And these people approaching 85

13        years old and maybe even older made it very, very

14        difficult for a lot of the service officers

15        throughout the state to try to find places to

16        accommodate these kinds of needs.

17                   So I think there has to be a very, very

18        clear distinction of who is eligible and if there

19        is no provision now they're going to have to make

20        provisions for some kind of special

21        accommodations for people who are with dementia,

22        that's another problem, who they claimed to be

23        aggressive they will not take them in because

24        they say they don't have the staff to provide for



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2         them, but these are veterans, and there's got to

3         be accommodations made for them.                      And at the same

4         time --

5                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Ron --

6                    HONORABLE TOCCI:               -- I think most of the

7         state veteran homes should accommodate some kind

8         of an exclusive area that is separate with

9         different access and so on for people with

10        infectious diseases.             And then you heard that

11        there's a problem of visitation, families --

12                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Ron --

13                   HONORABLE TOCCI:               -- yes, I'm sorry, Ms.

14        Barrett.

15                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     -- we are,

16        yeah, you're past your time and I know that this

17        --

18                   HONORABLE TOCCI:               Okay.

19                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     -- is a

20        subject of interest to many of us so I think we

21        will come back to talking about --

22                   HONORABLE TOCCI:               Okay, sure.

23                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     -- this at the

24        question entered afterwards, but thank you very



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2         much.

3                     HONORABLE TOCCI:               Okay, fine.             I'm

4         sorry, I didn't realize it was limited now.                               I'll

5         stay on.

6                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Okay, thank

7         you.    I think our next speaker is Jason Skinner.

8                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Right.

9                     MR. JASON SKINNER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR,

10        NEW YORK STATE COUNTY VETERAN SERVICE OFFICE

11        ASSOCIATION:         Thank you, my name is Jason

12        Skinner, again, I want to echo everybody else's

13        comment on being appreciative of the invite to

14        speak today.         My name is Jason Skinner.                     I'm an

15        Iraq war veteran and before I get too much

16        farther I do want to thank all those other

17        Vietnam veterans that are out there statewide,

18        nationwide.        If it weren't for their service and

19        advocacy my generation would not be as well

20        respected and while it is still difficult to get

21        VA benefits it's a lot easier than it was for

22        them and they did not get the welcome home that I

23        do and I will put forth that respect and

24        acknowledge their service and what it means to me



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2         today, so thank you.

3                      I'm the executive director of the New

4         York State Veterans Service Officer Association.

5         We have 160 members that we know of; of about 300

6         veteran service officers statewide.                          We operate

7         in 62 counties.            We represent county veteran

8         service officers.             I am the director of the

9         Livingston County Veteran Service Agency, also a

10        member of the National Association of Counties

11        Military and Veterans Affairs Standing Committee

12        and I'm a vice-chair there, and I'm a participate

13        in the SAMHSA or Substance Abuse Mental Health

14        Administration, governor's challenge for suicide

15        prevention and my distinguished colleague, Tom

16        Ronayne is also on that committee working to end

17        suicide in New York State.

18                     A couple issues specific to COVID we've

19        seen kind of statewide is diversion away from VA

20        medical centers.             Because of COVID they don't

21        want people presenting.                 They are triaging phone

22        calls and diverting people to either urgent care

23        or emergency rooms and initially it was emergency

24        rooms.     Wolfe v. Wilkie and Stauve [phonetic] v.



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2         McDonald are confusing bits of law, but the VA

3         can bill or the provider can bill based on the

4         VA's determination that you needed to go to the

5         emergency room.          However, if it isn't actually

6         coded as an emergency, you will be billed by that

7         private institution and the VA will deny your

8         claim to pay that.            I myself actually received

9         this, this situation, but many will and

10        unfortunately, part of our job is to appeal those

11        decisions and you have 30 days to appeal them,

12        and with restrictions and visiting with people

13        face to face and office operations, this will be

14        an issue coming up and people will be,

15        unfortunately, negative impacts on their credit

16        reports due to VA billing issues.

17                    But also point out yes, meds from VA are

18        being from what I am to understand affected by

19        the United States Postal Service or the VA

20        staffing.      We're not quite sure why veterans are

21        getting them late, that is an impact.                         I know the

22        executive order that is meant to protect veterans

23        and the general populous from eviction has

24        actually disqualified them from tons of money



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2         that is federal through the SSVF grants.                          So if a

3         veteran is going to be evicted or in arrears in

4         their rent these grants can help them get out of

5         arrears or avoid being evicted.                     However, for

6         several months now these looming bills are piling

7         up without any eviction notice that would then

8         qualify them for these grants, but the way it is

9         right now there's no means to get these grant

10        funds in those veteran's hands, which is causing

11        significant mental health problems and anxiety

12        for our veterans.           I also [unintelligible]

13        [00:34:29] on, you know, veterans are also

14        employees and those that are unemployed often

15        times are reaching out to our local legislators

16        for assistance with the New York State

17        unemployment issues that we've had and we're

18        seeing statewide.           There's not necessarily a

19        veteran specific issue, but veterans are first

20        and foremost human beings and residents of our

21        great State of New York.

22                   As far as the many different issues that

23        have been brought up, you know, access to our

24        offices we believe is New York State Veteran



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2         Service Officers or County Service Officers that

3         without access to us a lot of them cannot become

4         qualified or eligible for VA services, financial

5         assistance through pensions or disability claims.

6         One of the biggest issues for us is the financial

7         crisis that has been caused by COVID as a

8         secondary issue.           As touched on before we get

9         $10,000 in funding through a, actually through an

10        executive order, not executive order, executive

11        law, 359 I believe, that states that we all get

12        $10,000 and unfortunately, we don't believe that

13        that's a discretionary amount because it is

14        established in law and we are not going to

15        receive that $10,000.

16                   We do as an association support Senator

17        Ortt's S, I believe, S102 or 106 this year, it

18        changes from year to year, of increasing that

19        amount the state provides to county service

20        officers from $10,000 to $20,000 statewide and

21        also bring up mental health.                   I've had at least

22        one suicide in our county, unfortunately, and I

23        saw the family last week.                 You know, anxiety due

24        to COVID and mental health, you know, pre-



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2         existing issues because they are a veteran are

3         actually being exacerbated right now with the

4         lack of ability to present urgent care to VA,

5         being diverted away.             A lot of the issues we're

6         seeing with things that are not necessarily

7         veteran related, but because they have PTSD or

8         any other issue that anxiety is drawing them

9         closer to suicide.

10                   Some of the problems you know we already

11        face in New York State and countrywide is the 20

12        a day number, but state numbers only come in

13        three years after the fact.                  The latest date of

14        2020 reflects 2017 numbers that put us in

15        Livingston County at 82 per 100,000.                         The highest

16        in the state yet we receive no funding for

17        suicide prevention.             If you look aid to

18        localities and how its distributed in the

19        [unintelligible] [00:37:22] county, for example,

20        gets $22.00 per veteran and we get $2.06 per --

21        so if we're looking at establishing mental health

22        funds at some point to help with veterans

23        statewide, I would also caution you with some of

24        what I'm, to understand it at a national and



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2         state level, we often have branding issues where,

3         you know, the Dwyer Program named after Dwyer,

4         PFC Dwyer, you know, in the image that's in your

5         head of a man saving a child that's pushing a lot

6         of mostly females away from these programs.

7                     SENATOR BROOKS:              I think we're in a

8         situation, I think we all agree and we want to

9         hear some additional information from you, but we

10        do have some time constraints and we're in a

11        situation where you're over the allocation, but

12        as we have the follow up discussion, I think

13        maybe we can discuss some of these points at that

14        time.    I'm sorry, I apologize.

15                    MR. SKINNER:            If you don't mind, I'll

16        just quickly close with, you know, it really

17        didn't matter what part of the state somebody

18        joined in, but when they come back they should

19        have the same, you know, specific benefits and it

20        shouldn't be different when you come back to a

21        different locality.              That's just my stance on,

22        you know, hopefully, you guys see it the same

23        well as well depending, you know, it didn't

24        matter where you came from in our state, but when



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2         you come back you should have an equal, I guess,

3         benefits, but thank you.

4                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you, okay, and

5         scheduled Daniel Griffin would be our next

6         speaker.

7                    MR. DANIEL GRIFFIN, VICE PRESIDENT, NYS

8         VETERANS NURSING HOME BOARD OF VISITORS:                          Yes,

9         I'm Dan Griffin, I'm vice president of the Board

10        of Visitors at the NYS Veterans Nursing Home at

11        Montrose and the only reason I'm here instead of

12        the president, Bill Mann, he's had some recent

13        health issues.         I want to thank the committee for

14        allowing me to speak today.                  COVID-19 has had a

15        direct impact, a drastic impact on the residents

16        at the nursing homes, the veterans nursing homes,

17        particularly to also the families.                       Four months

18        they have not had a visitation, so that's four

19        months that husbands can't touch their wives or

20        hug their wives and husbands, children,

21        grandfathers whatever.               Humans need the touch.

22        You need to touch each other and it's extremely

23        depressing.       I'm receiving many phone calls from

24        family members frustrated with the fact that they



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2         have not been able to come in and hug their loved

3         ones in the nursing homes.                   The homes have tried,

4         but it's not really effective.                     These window

5         visits where the family members stands outside

6         with a cellphone, they wheel in the resident and

7         they're sitting in a wheelchair with a mask on

8         and a cellphone.            They can't hear each other and

9         some of the residents can't speak anyway or

10        they're bed ridden.              The Zooms, sometimes the

11        Zoom doesn't work and then you get the same

12        problem, they have to wear a mask; you can't hear

13        them, they can't hear each other, and the

14        residents are hard of hearing to begin with.

15                    I have a solution I think may work.                      I

16        have gone to a couple doctor's visits myself

17        recently and actually went to one over a month

18        and a half ago.           The doctor had on a mask, a

19        shield, gloves, a gown, why can't the family

20        members come to the home with the same thing; put

21        on a mask, a shield, gloves, the gown and then go

22        and hug and touch their loved ones in the nursing

23        home.    It's so depressing and I'm surprised that

24        we don't have more passing away just from



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2         depression, and once you get depressed enough and

3         the lack of human contact, you're just going to

4         give up, you're going to pass away.                        This is a

5         big, big problem and I think that is the only

6         solution.

7                     I'm certainly open to any other

8         solutions, but it's the only one I can think of.

9         We've got to change this because the 28 day

10        program that they have is they have to go 28 days

11        without a positive test.                Now the only ones

12        coming with a test positive are employees because

13        they go home; so they're tested daily.                            Now they

14        get close to the 28 days when they're going to

15        allow visitations and then one employee tests

16        positive, they start the 28 days all over again.

17        They get their hopes up, they're almost ready to

18        come in and then they're dashed again and this

19        has been going on for four months.                       This has got

20        to change, it's got to stop.                   We've got to help

21        these people to see their loved ones and to see

22        their families, I think it's going to have a very

23        adverse effect on their health.                     I thank you for

24        the time.



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2                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you very much,

3         and we do have one additional speaker that's been

4         added, Tom Ronayne from Suffolk County.                            Tom had

5         I have had an opportunity to work together quite

6         a bit and we're so very glad to have him join us,

7         Tom.

8                    MR. THOMAS RONAYNE, SUFFOLK COUNTY

9         VETERANS SERVICE AGENCY:                Good morning, thank you

10        Senator Brooks.          Thank you, thank you to the

11        Chairs and Committee for the opportunity to speak

12        to you hear this morning.                 Before I begin I'd

13        also like to thank Senator Brooks publically for

14        his service, not only to the State of New York,

15        but for his service in uniform as a member of the

16        New York Army National Guard.                    So thank you for

17        that brother comrade, brother.                    I would, I would

18        echo all of the comments that have been made here

19        this morning by the previous speakers.                            We have

20        experienced in each county across New York State

21        I'm sure a variety of challenges related to

22        COVID, but there are, there are commonalities

23        across the state in terms of the impact on our

24        veteran population primarily with access to care



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2         and services.

3                    I would say that one of the greatest

4         challenges that we face here in Suffolk, as a

5         county of not only 1.5 million people, but we're

6         very diverse both geographically and well, yeah,

7         geographically.          We're a large county, we're on

8         an island, we're surrounded by water, but we go

9         from very suburban to very rural very quickly as

10        you transit across our county and in those

11        different areas we see different levels of need.

12        One of the challenges that has been discussed

13        here this morning has been access to VA, and I

14        will, admittedly I will say to you I am a service

15        connected disabled veteran, I'm a proud Navy

16        veteran.     I am a consumer and user of VA

17        services, but I will tell you that in my both

18        professional opinion and in my personal opinion

19        as a service connected veteran, VA did not make,

20        it did not make it easy for veterans to access

21        their network.

22                   We have had a checkpoint set up at the

23        entrance to our local VA medical center that is

24        still in place.          Veterans presenting or having



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2         their, are being screened, they are having their

3         temperatures taken.               We're actually seeing

4         veterans being diverted from the emergency room

5         if they don't have an appointment.                         The, the

6         state admission of VA is to provide care to those

7         who have, to our veterans and while I, I admire

8         their commitment to maintain a level of

9         cleanliness and to maintain the safety of their

10        staff, I think that they have gone too far in one

11        direction and they have neglected the importance

12        of serving the veterans in our community and to

13        the extent that veterans have been placed in

14        peril.

15                     Much can be said about the challenges

16        that we've experienced across our state veterans

17        home.     Here in Long Island we have the Long

18        Island State Veteran's Home at Stony Brook;

19        probably the most singularly the most remarkable

20        skilled nursing care facility that I have ever

21        encountered.          It is a wonderful facility, it is

22        administered with exceptional professionalism.

23        Our veterans, we have 88 veterans in a facility

24        of 350 beds.          We've lost 88 veterans in that



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2         facility to COVID, just a horrific number.

3         These, these losses are tragically compounded by

4         the fact that the remaining, the remaining

5         residents of the facility have not had visitation

6         since early March and the mental health

7         challenges, the mental health strains that the

8         lack of visitation and the lack of contact with

9         their loved ones places on them is having a

10        deleterious effect on the entire population of

11        these facilities.

12                   I will, I will begin to summarize and

13        prepare my close, but what I would like to say is

14        over the years, over the past 10 years or so VA

15        has placed an increasingly significant burden on

16        veteran service officers primarily county veteran

17        service agencies and by that, by that what I mean

18        is we have been required to enhance and increase

19        the nature and the frequency of our trainings.

20        We maintain credentials.                We are federally

21        credentialed by the office of general counsel for

22        the Department of Veteran's Affairs and we have

23        gone from preparation of claims primarily to

24        develop, development of fully developed claims to



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2         now developing claims that are ready to rate and

3         while this certainly does serve our veteran

4         clients it has drastically increased the

5         commitment of time, resources and energy

6         necessary to properly develop, prosecute and case

7         manage a claim.          We receive exactly zero funding

8         from the federal government.                   We receive a very

9         small stipend from New York State, but none of

10        these have any effect in offsetting the

11        increasingly onerous financial burden on our, on

12        our county and our resources.

13                   We partner exceptionally well with other

14        agencies statewide.             We have a relationship with

15        many of the people on this call today, but at the

16        end of the day if we are going to continue to

17        address the COVID related issue of unemployment

18        has led to significant increases in the levels of

19        housing insecurity and food insecurity that we

20        are seeing as veterans present.                     What we are also

21        seeing and this is extremely important is we are

22        seeing veterans who are presenting for the first

23        time as consumers of either veteran service

24        agency services or VA services because they have



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2         been among the historic two-thirds or 72%

3         actually of America's veterans who do not have a

4         relationship with VA.              These veterans who have

5         lost employment, they have lost the healthcare

6         and medical benefits typically associated with

7         that employment now find themselves in a position

8         of having, through necessity presenting for VA

9         care and the challenges of accessing VA at this

10        time are greater than have been in recent memory.

11                   We need help senators, assembly members,

12        we need, we need your support, we need funding

13        terribly not only for veteran services, but as in

14        my prepared testimony I outline all of the

15        ancillary support services that we partner with

16        across our counties and across our state are also

17        fiscally challenged.             As the resources begin to

18        become increasingly limited, we will experience,

19        unfortunately, the inability to provide services

20        to veterans at the levels that we certainly need.

21        New York State Division of Veterans Affairs is an

22        extraordinarily helpful organization.                         They are

23        an essential resource to each of our counties,

24        but again without, without the appropriate



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2         resources we cannot do the job that we are tasked

3         with doing, and for the veterans on this call

4         today I know that you will agree with me that

5         this is not a job, this is a calling.                         We have an

6         obligation.       We have a solemn oath obligation to

7         serve our brother and sisters in uniform.                         Each

8         of us who wore the flag of this great nation on

9         our sleeve has a right that when they knock on

10        one of our doors they receive the appropriate

11        level of service and not be turned away or have a

12        reduction services purely because of fiscal

13        constraint.       That's simply an unacceptable

14        reason.

15                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     I completely

16        hear what you're saying and agree and I'm sorry

17        to interrupt you, but you're over the time limit

18        as well and we, you know, I think we have an

19        opportunity during our questioning time to talk

20        further about his and obviously, you know and

21        everyone here knows that the state is not in the

22        position that it would like to be financially.

23        So, you know, as much as we would like to be

24        adding to programs that we support, you know,



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2         that, that without support from the federal

3         government at this point it seems unlikely and

4         obviously, we're going to look at revenue sources

5         as well, but, but, you know, right now I think

6         our focus is to really understand the impact that

7         COVID on our veteran community and how we can,

8         you know, in the potential second round or, you

9         know, just going forward how we can work on

10        ensuring that we're protecting our veterans and

11        military families.            So Senator Brooks you want to

12        start with the questioning?

13                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you and I

14        think all of us as the Chair said, all of us

15        recognize that funding is a tremendous challenge,

16        going to be even more so as a result of the

17        economic impact of the virus and the changed

18        economy.     I think, I think some very important

19        points were made particularly in the funding

20        aspects, that we're looking at population instead

21        of the number of veterans that, you know, the

22        allocation on a per veteran basis is particularly

23        disappointing.         But again our discussion today is

24        related with the COVID and I think one of the



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2         important positions or points that were made is

3         visitation in the nursing homes and I believe

4         that -- I had an opportunity the other day to

5         visit, it wasn't a veterans home, but it was a

6         nursing home and the families were visiting the

7         guests from the outside window and, and, you

8         know, the closet it came to touching was hand

9         against the wall.           I think that does have a

10        tremendous impact on the mental health of people,

11        that separation.

12                   So to all of you as we look at the

13        question of the COVID virus itself and the

14        separation that's been required, the use of masks

15        and protective equipment and the rest, you know,

16        Dan, you made the recommendation that we put

17        people in PPE to make visitations.                       Do you see

18        anything aside from that idea that from a VA

19        standpoint could have been done differently in

20        this virus in terms of, of visitations of people?

21        You know, we're really in a situation where we're

22        kind of learning more and more about this virus

23        day to day; there's no playbook, and we know that

24        it does spread and we know many of the, many of



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2         the patients that we have in these facilities

3         have multiple medical problems.                       Any of you see

4         something you think should have been done at the

5         state level to address this issue?

6                      MR. GRIFFIN:            I think just again the

7         PPEs, if the medical doctor feels that he's safe

8         from getting it from me and all his other

9         patients, I think that they could have had the

10        family members with all the precautions with the

11        gloves, the mask, the shield, everything and they

12        should have had visitation right from the

13        beginning.        You know, not often, maybe only for a

14        few minutes, but enough -- some of the, some of

15        the residents can't speak, they're bedridden,

16        they might not even know for sure that they are

17        even there, but still that touching, that

18        hugging, that feeling and I think they could have

19        done that once they learned that with the right

20        PPEs they could safely be around somebody that

21        possibly has it, but they're certainly not going

22        to pass it onto them, and that's, that's the main

23        thing.

24                     MR. SKINNER:            Senator can I also address



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2         -- I guess I've had two instances and we're a

3         fairly rural small county and family members will

4         call to advocate, you know, to get their veteran

5         or loved one out of a hospital or a vet nursing

6         home situation because they're anxiety is so

7         amped up based on the news and the likelihood

8         that they may contract it or pass away in a

9         nursing home.        So it's very difficult because

10        they're asking us to advocate and I had one

11        veteran, who happens to have a Vietnam Veteran in

12        the Bath, VA as his father and he had made the

13        comment, you know, if he dies in there you'll

14        have two dead veterans on your hands.                         That's how

15        bad the anxiety is with someone with mental

16        health.

17                   I'm sure you guys are receiving calls

18        from constituents that are similar.                        Our hands

19        are tied when it comes to VA or the state homes

20        to advocate in any way for visitation and,

21        unfortunately, I think that may be where the

22        state can help is to assist our local veteran

23        service officers to have means of communication

24        to help the administration of the actual nursing



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2         home talk to this person that is having an

3         anxiety attack so it doesn't rise to the level of

4         a potential suicide, and we don't have to go down

5         that route of intervention.                  Because what I'm

6         noticing I guess, is a lack of communication

7         between the administration of these hospitals and

8         the loved one that, that are wanting to visit.

9                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, any other

10        comments?

11                    MR. RONAYNE:           Sir, if I may just

12        piggyback on what Jason said.                    One, one model

13        that we have here in Suffolk County that we're

14        very proud of is for many years now we have

15        maintained, Suffolk County Veterans Service

16        Agency has maintained an office, a full time

17        office within the Long Island State Veterans Home

18        and we provide counseling.                  We provide claims

19        service.     We bring a proficiency that is really

20        at a very high level, but one of the, one of the

21        ancillary benefits of that is we also bring a

22        great deal of money into the state veterans home

23        throughout successful advocacy on behalf of the,

24        of the veteran residents at these homes and the,



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2         the cost, a supplement -- the cost of maintaining

3         an office is negligible, it's barely a rounding

4         error when you consider the many tons of millions

5         of dollars that we bring into these facilities

6         each year.      So perhaps that is an investment that

7         could be considered as an offset to increase

8         state funding.         If we have a larger footprint

9         within the veteran's services community that

10        directly translates into more revenue coming into

11        New York State.

12                   In my county alone we, we annually bring

13        well in excess of $100 million into the county

14        through VA compensation, pension and other VA

15        revenues, and that is not including the

16        operational budgets of the VA Medical Center.                        So

17        the net positive affect that veteran service

18        officers have on the finances of any county

19        should be a consideration when you, when you

20        deliberate as to how fund our agencies or how to

21        support our agencies.

22                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you, my time has

23        expired so I'll turn it over to Assemblywoman

24        Barrett.



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2                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you

3         senator and thank all of you for your testimony.

4         I feel like there's, you know, a panoply of

5         subjects that I want to delve into here, but, you

6         know, the mental health issue is something that's

7         always been a high priority of mine.

8         Communication is something that I, you know, as a

9         former journalist that, you know, that just sort

10        of is a tool that I feel that we never use well

11        enough.    In talking about the nursing homes and

12        the need for families to be connected, that, you

13        know, that kind of ties in with, you know, with

14        the issues of communication because if people

15        aren't communicating with residents and with the

16        family members there's a sense of desperation

17        that comes out of that.               And then equally

18        important is dignity in just keeping the dignity

19        of our veterans and other family members foremost

20        and throughout this process and, of course,

21        there's heartbreaking stories about deaths and,

22        you know, waiting for to be able to bury people

23        and, you know, where bodies are stored.

24                   I guess what I really like to hear from



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2         all of you is what role would you like the VS,

3         you know, the state division to be playing if

4         there is one that would help kind of facilitate

5         and communicate, especially with the Veterans

6         Service Organizations because they are your, you

7         know, links and your, your connection?                            And is

8         there, you know, is there some new functions that

9         we learned through this process that Dwyer

10        funding should be used for?                  Is there, you know,

11        I heard I think Jason say, you know, the numbers

12        have changed, people who never came before are

13        now accessing the veteran services?                        Is there

14        something that, some other programming and some

15        other function that we should be looking at,

16        Dwyer Funds paying for and I completely agree it

17        should be across the state, it should not be

18        isolated in a county by county way.                        So in my

19        remaining three minutes please, I'd love to hear

20        from whoever has any thoughts.

21                   MR. TOCCI:           Madame Chair.

22                   MR. SKINNER:            Sorry, Ron.

23                   MR. TOCCI:           Yeah, I just, real quickly.

24        It's obvious that the frontline services are



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2         local veteran service counselors and I think from

3         our commitment, talking to each other, learning

4         from each other, it's obvious.                    The Division of

5         Veterans Affairs supplements us and we've had

6         good working relationships.                  There's some great

7         people that service, you know, veterans in the

8         Kingsbridge Center.             A lot of veteran nursing

9         home and so on and I can suggest a review of a

10        federal grant that goes through the Department of

11        Labor, which is approximately 8 to $10 million

12        for the state veterans program, and that really

13        is eaten up in part by administrative fees and so

14        on.   It's federal money, I think that money

15        should go to the Division of Veterans Affairs and

16        be used more efficiently through our Veterans

17        Service counselors.             It's all federal money and

18        we had advocated for a change in the merger of

19        that state veterans program with the Division of

20        Veterans Affairs, and I think it would be better

21        spent basically to [unintelligible] [01:02:13]

22        that they, that program funds is down to around

23        50 or 60 and like I said before they're basically

24        employment reps.           We have the same services on



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2         the local levels and I really think that that

3         should be looked at because it's a possibility of

4         using that money to supplement our frontline

5         people.

6                      The last thing I'd like to talk about if

7         I can just real quickly.                  Now the honors of these

8         people who have died in our nursing homes, a lot

9         of times the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Air

10        Force can't get people, I'm wondering if we could

11        ask the National Guard to set aside a certain

12        squad of people throughout the state that might

13        be on call for special people, silver star, medal

14        of honors and so on.               I think that that would be

15        very, very helpful to the families.                          And the last

16        thing I do believe that even with all of the

17        financial stress we have there should be a

18        $10,000 stipend for supplement burial expenses to

19        those people that died in our nursing homes.

20        These are people --

21                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Right, no I,

22        I'm going to interrupt you because I'd like to

23        let --

24                     MR. TOCCI:           Oh, that's okay.



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2                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     -- Jason

3         answer and I know --

4                     MR. TOCCI:           Yeah, sure.

5                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     -- we've

6         talked about that before.                  So Jason, go ahead.

7                     MR. SKINNER:            Right and there was a lot

8         in that question so and I have a lot, as far as

9         communication goes and another issue that

10        veterans are facing in rural America is

11        telehealth, without broadband you can't do

12        telehealth so that's a barrier.                      The Division of

13        Veterans Services in New York, we respect them,

14        we work alongside with them, we train with them.

15        They're co-located in VA Medical Centers, and

16        they should really be in state facilities like

17        the nursing home, that would give us a link to

18        them.    This is an awfully easy thing for the

19        state to do and because of the federal government

20        shutting down its access to anyone there's a

21        backlog in Board of Veterans Appeals Hearings

22        because they have been cancelled and also state

23        veteran service officers that are co-located in

24        those VAs are not allowed in their offices.                          So



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2         they're currently working from home and doing a

3         lot of training and, you know, we are in our

4         offices co-located with county resources that,

5         you know, we would really like to have the

6         connection with the state homes through maybe our

7         brethren that work [unintelligible] [01:04:41].

8                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Okay, thank

9         you, my time is up so I think senator, if you

10        want to go to the senate and we'll go back and

11        forth between the senate and the assembly.

12                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Alright, that's sounds

13        good.    I'll give an opportunity to ranking

14        member, if she has any questions to ask first?

15                    SENATOR RITCHIE:               Thank you.              I do want

16        to address the nursing home visitation issue,

17        specifically, I, unfortunately in the last couple

18        months my father passed away in the middle of

19        this and I know that we had limited visits.                             At

20        the end we were able to, we were able to see him,

21        but I truly cannot imagine the families with

22        loved ones at the veterans homes and at our

23        nursing homes that haven't had any contact with

24        their family, weren't able to say goodbye.                             So



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2         that is something that is really, hits home to me

3         and I know that one of the other hearings someone

4         had mentioned that maybe there was a way for one

5         family member to be designated and have a COVID

6         test and go in with the appropriate protective

7         gear and that at least the veteran at the home

8         would have some contact from a loved one.                         So the

9         two gentleman in particular who addressed the

10        nursing home, could you tell me if you think that

11        would be something that would be a benefit or not

12        enough?

13                   MR. GRIFFIN:            Absolutely, that would be

14        benefit I believe.            At least one person yes,

15        that's a good start to come in with, you know,

16        again, be tested outside, come in with all the

17        gear and just have a few minutes with their loved

18        one.   The co-chair had asked what could the

19        committee do or what can, yeah, committee do to

20        help -- I mean, you guys go to a lot of meetings,

21        but I can only suggest that maybe directors of

22        the Veteran Service Agencies meet, you know, on

23        Zoom, whatever, with the committees on a monthly

24        basis, just to let them know what the problems



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2         are out there.         It's just a suggestion.

3                    SENATOR RITCHIE:               Thank you, that's my

4         only comment.

5                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     I, I don't

6         know if co-chair of the hearing, Pam Hunter,

7         Assembly Member Hunter is on.                    Would you like to

8         ask a question?

9                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Yes, actually,

10        this is to Mr. Griffin.               I had mentioned in my

11        opening statement relative to the effects of

12        toxins, Agent Orange specifically, you know,

13        relating to the folks who could be in the nursing

14        home, the veteran homes and I'm concerned about

15        their care.       Obviously, they're concerned with

16        the autoimmune disorders that they may have and I

17        just wanted to know has there been any talk

18        especially with your group or since you're,

19        you're, you know, essentially on here

20        representing the veteran home in some capacity,

21        any kind of discussion relative to a huge

22        population of people who have these presumptive

23        conditions based on toxins.                  We're not even

24        talking about the people who, you know, could



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2         have this concern relative to Afghanistan or

3         other places and how it's going to relate to

4         COVID and, you know, potentially, you know,

5         weather its visiting or the effects because you

6         were saying that people were being turned away

7         for visiting, but people are turned away for

8         medical care as well.

9                    I'm just trying to get a feel for, are

10        any conversations and maybe some of the other,

11        you know, folks who are on the panel as well, any

12        conversations specifically about this and what

13        can we do proactively I guess from a State's

14        perspective to address this issue?

15                   MR. GRIFFIN:            Well, no, there hasn't

16        been any talking about that.                   The population,

17        well, I'm a Vietnam Vet and there's a lot of

18        Vietnam Veterans in these homes, which when I

19        first learned that it kind of shocked me because

20        I kind of think nursing residents is 80 to 90s

21        not 60's, but the fact is there are a lot of

22        vets, Vietnam vets in these homes and they do

23        have several other illnesses that are caused by

24        Agent Orange.        Have they discussed anything about



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2         that, no.      I believe that they should have

3         priority to get into the homes if they have these

4         underlying diseases, but they're not, again,

5         they're not treating anybody at these homes,

6         they're just making it for a better place to

7         live, and they are excellent I have to say.                        The

8         New York State Veteran nursing homes are

9         outstanding, they really are.

10                    MR. SKINNER:           I would echo what he said,

11        but I'd also add on what we do for a living

12        situation.      So when it comes to when somebody

13        passes away with an underlying condition we can

14        dependent indemnity compensation, which helps the

15        widow and the family with other ancillary

16        benefits like education for children and things.

17        A lot of people don't realize that we do

18        represent the families as well as veterans when

19        one passes, and if they are listed as COVID as a

20        manner of death on their death certificate and

21        not one of those underlying issues, they may be

22        denied federal benefit.               Now it takes a lot of

23        education and a lot of practice to appeal enough

24        times to get the VA to see that light, you know,



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2         maybe there's an advocacy with coroners, medical

3         examiners throughout the state to ensure that

4         they are putting the secondary's or things that

5         contributed to the death of the veteran in order

6         to assist us in the claims process to ensure

7         that, you know, COPD or any of those other

8         potentially service connected conditions qualify

9         that veteran and family for, for death benefits.

10                   MR. RONAYNE:            Now if I might just

11        piggyback on what Jason.                Jason is making an

12        extremely important point and one of the, one of

13        the points to your, your point to you, co-chair,

14        most of the deaths related to COVID had

15        comorbidity, there were underlying conditions

16        that contributed to the cause of death, yet COVID

17        has been listed as the primary on the death

18        certificates.        Now as Jason said without the COD

19        including one of the underlying's the DIC or the

20        Defendant's Indemnification Compensation is

21        likely to be denied.             The appeals process in

22        these cases will result in a much more labor

23        intensive, much more time consuming process for

24        us to argue with VA that those denials should be



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2         reversed.

3                     Every hour that we spend having to fight

4         for inappropriate or erroneous denials are ours

5         that were not spent serving veterans and we're

6         seeing more veterans coming in to us, to our, to

7         seek services through us; also, seeing a much

8         more complex presentation of cases that are

9         coming to us.        Post 911 veterans with multiple

10        appointments are presenting with multiple,

11        multiple layers of disabilities and claims.                        Our

12        Vietnam veterans are presenting with complex and

13        multi, multi-tiered claims.                  So with the, with

14        the financial challenges and the staffing

15        difficulties that we all confront the issue of

16        these potentially erroneous denials is a very,

17        very important point and we need to be very, we

18        need to be very clear on that.

19                    MR. GRIFFIN:           I'd like to piggyback too

20        on that.     One thing the state I think can do is

21        the death certificates.               They're not uniform in

22        the state.      It is very important to get that

23        check coming in for that widow, the veteran had

24        to pass away from a service related condition.



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2         Now some areas on New York State they don't put

3         the cause of death on the death certificate and

4         the VA won't even accept that.                    So we have to do

5         research to find out what, you know, what that

6         person actually die of, get another addended

7         death certificate.            If just somehow you can get

8         it uniform, all death certificates in the State

9         of New York must have the cause of death on it.

10        Thanks.

11                   CMDSGT MAJOR FLAHERTY:                   I would like to

12        go back to something --

13                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    One quick --

14                   CMDSGT MAJOR FLAHERTY:                   -- Jason said

15        concerning the video conferencing and its true a

16        lot of veterans don't have the capability of

17        doing that and what I've been doing and

18        particularly more so in the future with the Dwyer

19        Program, the post exchange system has given me

20        two TVs that I have downstairs in the dayroom

21        that we're going to be opening and the veterans

22        are going to be able to come in and use that to

23        be able to video conference in my office.                         Last

24        week I had a female veteran that was going under



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2         her evaluation by her comp and pen based on

3         sexual trauma in the military and she, even

4         though she had the capability at home, she wanted

5         to come in and have me sit on the psychiatric

6         evaluation and it worked out perfectly.                           The

7         doctor not only asked her questions, but asked me

8         questions because I've been working with her for

9         over five years.

10                   So the video conferencing is really

11        important and that's another example of how we

12        can effectively use the Dwyer Program.

13                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    I just have a

14        quick follow up question, Chair Barrett, relative

15        to the housing.          I believe someone had talked

16        about evictions relative to, to our veterans and

17        obviously, it's a problem statewide, but wanting

18        to get any clarity.             Is there any way that we're

19        actively collecting all of this eviction data so

20        that we know across the state how many veterans

21        at what point are being effected by evictions and

22        the money and the grants that someone mentioned

23        that it's supposedly available that's not coming

24        to the veterans.           How we can facilitate getting



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2         that money to the veterans?                  Thank you.

3                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

4         yes, I think that I share your concern at that, I

5         flagged that myself so I think that's something

6         we definitely want to follow up on.                        Thank you,

7         Pam.   We go back to the senate.

8                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, so Senator Liu I

9         can't see whether you raised a hand requesting if

10        anyone, does anyone else have a question; John,

11        do you have a question?

12                   SENATOR JOHN LIU:                Mr. Chairman, I don't

13        have a question right now, but I'm very

14        appreciative of this testimony.

15                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay.

16                   SENATOR DAPHNE JORDAN:                   I do have one

17        and my hands been up since the beginning.

18                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, I can't see you,

19        unfortunately.

20                   SENATOR JORDAN:              Senator Jordan, I'll

21        put myself on.

22                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, so go ahead.

23        There you go.

24                   SENATOR JORDAN:              Okay, good.               Thank you,



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2         Chairman Brooks and thank you to the co-chairs

3         for hosting this public hearing today, it is

4         important.      I was recently appointed to this

5         committee and I'm looking forward to serving you.

6         Meeting the needs of our veterans is serious and

7         it's a bipartisan responsibility in one that we

8         all take seriously and I'm going to just bring up

9         a very simple issue that I see in this COVID-19

10        problem and that is we talked about the human

11        touch, but I believe in my county veterans

12        service directors, the human touch is also

13        important in our county offices, our veteran

14        services offices.           And I know that I've had the

15        pleasure of knowing Commander Sargent Major Gary

16        Flaherty because I do represent all of Columbia

17        County and I know that Gary Flaherty, even before

18        COVID worked 24/7, 365, round the clock every

19        single day to help his veterans and they couldn't

20        have a better advocate than him.

21                   I know that you're all working very hard

22        and able to still provide the services that you

23        are supposed to provide to the veterans, but with

24        your offices closed to visitors, I'm sure that



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2         that is a hurdle and again that human touch is

3         lost and when the human touch is lost I know, you

4         know, people that meet Gary they, they take him

5         in, I mean, Gary takes them in and they want to

6         learn from him and they want to know all that he

7         has to offer.        They want to join his Dwyer

8         Program and peer to peer events because they've

9         met him, and so I'm wondering do you feel that

10        your offices should be open?                   Are you ready to be

11        able to take the visitors, which are your

12        veterans in as they always came in?

13                   MR. SKINNER:            Our office is open in

14        Livingston County and we are taking appointments

15        only and then wiping everything down before and

16        after and wearing PPE for each visit and,

17        unfortunately, it is by appointment only.                         I do

18        wish and I hope for a time where we are able to

19        engage with just walk-ins, I think it's just a

20        level of customer service our heroes deserve and

21        family members as well to be just able to wander

22        into our office and have somebody available to

23        answer their questions and also answer the

24        phones.    I'm really not a big fan of the whole



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2         answering machine situation that a lot of offices

3         have, but that's a matter of funding and staffing

4         as well as, you know, a lot of our service

5         officers are either laid off or furloughed right

6         now across the state because of the financial

7         crisis piece, but I'm extremely excited and I

8         can't wait to get out into the community and do

9         what we do best and why the County Service

10        officer Association prides itself on living in

11        our community and serving in our community

12        because we know where the veterans.

13                   We go to them and we do outreach and we,

14        you know, we want to help and reach out, and I

15        think that is one of the major issues that we

16        face and they are facing veterans as it pertains

17        to COVID, is the inability to connect and to

18        reassure that the government is here to assist

19        them when they need us, and that's our role and

20        function, but also because like Mr. Flaherty

21        being one of the greatest I've ever known, you

22        know, we are veterans.               We live to do what we do

23        and we do it not because we get paid, but because

24        we love our veterans and we don't want to see



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2         anymore take their own lives.

3                    MR. RONAYNE:            If I could just add one

4         small point to the nursing home piece.                            You know,

5         we talk about the human touch and we talk about

6         the importance of the, the value of the residents

7         being able to be in contact with other residents

8         and their loved ones.              Perhaps a small step that

9         we could take would be to invite the nursing

10        homes to be allowed to reopen their barber shops

11        and their beautician stations.                    These are people

12        who are already in the offices, they're already

13        in the buildings, they don't pose a threat

14        because they're already present on site, and the

15        level of dignity that would be restored by

16        allowing the veterans to return and have a, have

17        a haircut, have a shave would be a tremendously

18        valuable mental health boost to these folks, and

19        a, I don't think it would cost anything.                            These

20        are people who are already staffed and it would

21        provide a significant boost to their mental

22        wellbeing and provide some dignity to them in an

23        environment where right now, those things are

24        lacking, their challenged.



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2                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    That actually

3         has come up before and I'm glad you raised it

4         because it does seem like a small gesture that

5         would go a long way to restoring dignity and

6         making people feel.             I mean, we heard stories

7         even about, about veterans who didn't want to

8         Facetime their family members because they didn't

9         want to be seen with shaggy hair or, you know,

10        not looking the way they like to view themselves.

11        So, so thank you for those comments and thank

12        you, senator.        I think now we will go to our

13        ranker, Assembly Member Jake Ashby for a

14        question.

15                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER JAKE ASHBY:                      Thank you,

16        Madam Chair.        I've got a few questions here,

17        Gary, or Sgt. Major, earlier you actually

18        answered one of, partially answered one of the

19        questions that I have when you're talking about

20        using technology.           Now I understand the local vet

21        center that we have in the capital district isn't

22        seeing people in person yet, and so the option is

23        for veterans who are receiving counseling

24        services at the vet centers to do so at either



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2         online or over the phone, and I'm wondering if

3         that's, if any of you have seen kind of an

4         increase in demand because of that.                         I know that

5         a lot of veterans choose to go to vet centers and

6         without being able to do that are you seeing them

7         come into your offices now.                   In particular, to

8         Gary, how has the response been in terms of using

9         technology versus in person counseling?

10                    CMDSGT. MAJOR FLAHERTY:                    I think it's

11        been very positive and not only for our veterans

12        in communications with their doctors at the VA, I

13        had a cardiology appointment two weeks ago when

14        we were standing in the rain at the cemetery for

15        Purple Heart Day and the doctor missed me, but

16        she continued all day to find me and communicate

17        my appointment.           I think it's very positive for

18        our veterans and for the VA community in general.

19                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   That's good to

20        hear.    I look forward to seeing you tomorrow,

21        too.

22                    CMDSGT. MAJOR FLAHERTY:                    Oh, thank you.

23                    MR. SKINNER:            And I would like to add

24        that I do know the people at our vet center and



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2         they have said that mental health need and their

3         visits via telehealth, via telephone or online

4         have increased exponentially and they do an

5         amazing job.

6                    MR. TOCCI:           As have the calls to suicide

7         crisis lines and mental health crisis lines, 20

8         to 25 percent increases.

9                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Wow.

10                   MR. TOCCI:           That type of access is

11        absolutely essential.              That's not even

12        negotiable, we have to have that access points

13        available to our veterans.

14                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Yeah, I mean, I

15        wonder about that, you know, the increase in

16        suicidal ideations and the access, I know it was

17        mentioned earlier to family services as well and

18        can be difficult sometimes to connect, you know,

19        with, with families, you know, just via, via

20        telehealth versus in person.                   Mr. Tocci, to your

21        testimony earlier, the admissions policy that you

22        spoke of was that a facility policy or was that a

23        state directive that came down?                     You're muted,

24        sir.



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2                      MR. TOCCI:           Can you hear me now, I'm

3         sorry?

4                      ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Yes.

5                      MR. TOCCI:           I think that was a state

6         policy that after they admitted people with a

7         COVID and had the problem and, unfortunately, we

8         lost in excess of 70 people right here in the

9         Montrose State Nursing Home, I heard Tom talk

10        about what happened out in Stony Brook also.                          I

11        think they changed the policy, they didn't allow

12        anybody in, and that created a real problem for

13        us, but we did have in Westchester County, which

14        was the Epic Center if you recall going back

15        early on when this started.                    The federal

16        government came in and set up an auxiliary

17        hospital there at County Center.                        They put up

18        tents and they did all kinds of things and that

19        could have been accommodated, you know, at one of

20        our facilities that needed to.                      So that really

21        created a problem.

22                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   That's alarming

23        to hear that.          Excuse me, Mr. Ronayne, the

24        diverting of patients at the ER, unless they have



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2         an appointment, do you know if that's occurring

3         at other VA's or is that just exclusive to yours?

4                    MR. RONAYNE:            I would only, I wouldn't

5         risk speaking to what's taking place in areas

6         outside of our particular medical center's

7         [unintelligible] [01:26:19] area, but I do

8         understand that that was the practice at some.                        I

9         believe that has been relaxed at some facilities,

10        but it continues to be the case here.

11                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Okay, well, I

12        appreciate the testimony that everybody's given

13        on this panel and I know that the resources that

14        we have are limited.             I would invite you to take

15        a look at a piece of legislation that I sponsor

16        along with Senator Brooks and the senate that

17        would elevate the Division of Veteran Services to

18        a fully-fledged state agency.                    It would make, it

19        would give the department the ability to allocate

20        federal funding that I think everybody in here is

21        talking about.         It would make that, increase the

22        accessibility for federal funding so that we

23        could better prepared for instances like this and

24        in terms of increasing the Dwyer, the Dwyer



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2         Program across the state.                   I really hope that the

3         legislation gains traction and my conversation

4         with other states in the northeast including

5         Connecticut, that when they transition to a

6         fully-fledged state agency that their funding

7         went up tremendously and that the services that

8         they were able to provide were greatly augmented.

9         So thank you all for being here today and I

10        appreciate your testimony, and I think I'll be

11        following up with a few of you afterwards.

12                     CMDSGT. MAJOR FLAHERTY:                    One of the

13        things I would add that that state can do is when

14        we first started going into this the veterans

15        were considered non-essential and that's a stigma

16        that has really effected the attitude of some of

17        our veterans.          Taking care of veterans is more

18        than just essential it's absolutely critical and

19        I don't think we need the stigma of being non-

20        essential.        Thank you.

21                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Thank you, Sgt.

22        Major.

23                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Senator.

24                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you.           Sgt.



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2         Major, I think all of us share your comment and

3         your belief.        We think veterans are one of the

4         greatest assets that we have and our veterans

5         gave us most of the benefits that we enjoy today,

6         and we owe all of them more than just a debt of

7         gratitude.      We owe them the respect that they

8         should have and the financial support they need

9         and these programs needs to be funded more

10        greatly.     Pete, I'm assuming you're on because

11        you have a question.

12                   SENATOR PETER B. HARCKHAM:                      Thank you,

13        Mr. Chair.      Good afternoon everybody.                     Thank you

14        all for your testimony and for your service,

15        especially during this difficult time.                            Personal

16        shout out to Dan and Ron who I know from

17        Westchester, thanks for your terrific work.                            Some

18        of this has been touched on already, I'd like to

19        take a slightly deeper dive.                   I'm the chair of

20        the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse,

21        co-chair of the Senate Task Force on Opioids.

22        Statewide we are seeing a marked increase in

23        overdose death and in suicide, often they go

24        together, co-occurring disorders and,



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2         unfortunately, we know the veteran population is

3         disproportionately impacted by both of these

4         public health challenges.                   What are you seeing

5         especially in terms of the delivery of substance

6         use disorder treatment, impacts by Coronavirus.

7         How is this exacerbated and identified weaknesses

8         in the current system and what have you learned

9         from this moving forward that we can change and

10        strengthen the system?

11                     MR. SKINNER:            Can I, can I answer just a

12        portion of that because I can't speak to all of

13        it.   I will say that the Bath VA is a substance

14        abuse recovery center that has 165 beds and what

15        has happened because the VA in Canandaigua is

16        undergoing its inpatient population has actually

17        been removed so that they can do construction of

18        new buildings and it may take about three years.

19        They've put those people that are not there for

20        substance abuse, but for mental health and put

21        them at the Bath VA.               So it's limited the access

22        in our region for veterans to have inpatient drug

23        rehab.     I can tell you in our area we are seeing

24        a spike in overdose deaths.                    I don't think you're



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2         a stranger to this statement, but when a death

3         certificate says on there overdose, we don't know

4         if it's a suicide.            An unattended death is not

5         typically without a note or obvious modality, you

6         know, called a suicide.

7                     So we kind of lump both of those in, in

8         some of our data to say these are co-occurring

9         issues with mental health.                  One is either, you

10        know, self-medicating for the PTSD or whatever

11        mental health situation we have.                      So yes, we have

12        seen an uptake in deaths related to it and I know

13        the VA is struggling to meet the need because

14        they've had to take their one inpatient

15        population into the other VA facility at Bath.

16                    SENATOR HARCKHAM:               Thank you.

17                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay.

18                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    I have three

19        more assembly members, I don't see any more

20        senators.      So should I just take it from here?

21                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Yeah, sure

22        [unintelligible] [01:32:04]

23                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    Okay, thank

24        you.   The next question or assembly member, Billy



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2         Jones.

3                      ASSEMBLY MEMBER BILLY JONES:                           Hello, hi,

4         sorry, my picture is horrible here, but first of

5         all, I want to thank each and every one of you to

6         your service or for your service to our country

7         and thank you to your service to our veterans.                              A

8         lot of times it's veterans helping veterans and

9         thank you so much for that.                    I just want to touch

10        on the nursing home and the veterans home visits.

11        I know it's been, it's been said, but many of us

12        were on a, in a meeting, hearing the other day

13        questioning the Department of Health, Doctor

14        Zucker on this.            I just think it is appalling

15        that we can't figure out a policy so that our

16        veterans can see their loved ones in these homes,

17        it truly is.          We need to do something about this.

18        We have visits going on in other densely

19        populated facilities, why can't we figure this

20        out for our loved ones in these nursing homes and

21        to see the veterans.               I get calls in my office

22        and letters, like many of my colleagues here

23        expressing their, their disappointment, they're

24        just upset over this.                How their loved ones are



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2         deteriorating in these homes and I just wanted to

3         make that a point.

4                     We need to figure this out, we need to

5         hold DOH accountable to figure something out

6         here.    We're doing it on other facilities, we can

7         do it here for loved ones to see their loved ones

8         in these facilities or in these homes I should

9         say.    I do have a question and it's kind of

10        piggybacking on Senator Harckham's comments about

11        we see the uptick of mental health issues in our

12        veterans during this time of COVID.                         Obviously,

13        substance use has gone up.                   Can you tell us what

14        obstacles are out there that we can eliminate,

15        bureaucratic, I know money is always, always

16        needed for these issues, but what obstacles can

17        we cut back or get rid of bureaucratically to

18        help get these services out the door, mental

19        health and substance use services?

20                    MR. TOCCI:           Frankly, just very, very

21        quickly.      Access to the facilities where the

22        services are provided and earlier on you heard

23        Dan Griffin talk about protective gear and so and

24        so forth, I think if they provided the necessary



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2         protection there should not be a cancellation of

3         personal visits especially for those experiencing

4         depression, potentially suicidal and so on.

5         Because they shut down, you know, all personal

6         visits and so on, these people can't get to their

7         providers, and telecommunications doesn't always

8         work.    So that would be something that we could

9         focus in on I think it would help.

10                    MR. SKINNER:            A quick thing, just as far

11        as the, all the different committees I'm on from

12        SAMSHA, Governor's Challenge to a new committee

13        that just stood up with the Center of Excellence

14        that studies suicide nationwide for the VA.

15        We're doing a Finger Lake study of modality and

16        death certificates and accuracy to that for our

17        catch man area of like 11 counties.                         There is so

18        many disjointed efforts, so many siloed efforts

19        throughout New York State, there's so many

20        experts that want to work together, but are

21        unaware of the other effort.                    So there is no

22        suicide prevention coordinator at the State

23        Division of Veterans Services, but there needs to

24        be coordinated efforts, shared information,



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2         shared work load because all of these disjointed

3         efforts throughout the entire state is not

4         helping us out, but there are all state funded

5         and state programs and state efforts through

6         Office of Mental Health and many of these other

7         organizations that don't tend to communicate

8         well, but they are state agencies.                       So there may

9         be an opportunity there to stand in a position to

10        help bring them all together so we're not

11        spinning our wheels.

12                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

13        thank you, Jason and thank you Billy.                         I have to

14        just echo because I always have said that if

15        you're a veteran who's a Vietnam veteran so

16        you're over 65 and you're struggling with

17        substance abuse and mental health issues and

18        other health issues, there are five different

19        state agencies that you have to find your way

20        through and that's a challenge for anybody and if

21        you're struggling with these issues it even more

22        so.   So, unfortunately, a lot of that has to do

23        with where the federal funding comes from, but

24        the silos are just an enormous obstacle for



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2         functioning at any level, but certainly agree

3         with you on that.           Our next question will come

4         from Marianne Buttenschon.

5                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER MARIANNE BUTTENSCHON:

6         Hello, thank you very much to our hosts as well

7         as the panelists.           I sincerely appreciate your

8         efforts and to all of our veterans, thank you for

9         your service.        I just need clarification and I

10        believe it was Mr. Skinner that was talking about

11        the eviction moratorium in regards to the

12        negative effects that it has on our veterans.

13        Could you just provide a little insight on that?

14                   MR. SKINNER:            Yes, to elaborate I, you

15        know, time is difficult and I can be very

16        [unintelligible] [01:37:41].                   So straight to the

17        point, the SSVF grant or Soldiers and Sailors

18        Veterans Families grant is administered by many

19        different not-for-profit through the state; the

20        largest one I believe is Soldier On.                         It is

21        federal funds that are there to help make the

22        first payment of someone's rent getting a new

23        place or to pay for someone who is in arrears to

24        keep them from being homeless.                    And,



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2         unfortunately, the one thing that most of these

3         providers hinge on is you're not homeless or at

4         risk of homeless until you have an actual

5         eviction notice.           And so without that they're

6         disqualified from the, from being a grantee, and

7         again, the longer we go the bigger this wave of

8         requests for any SSVF grantor is going to deal

9         with this onslaught and so will we.                        So we're

10        just waiting for that to come and I know there's

11        several vets that have reached out, but, you

12        know, they're going through the Department of

13        Social Services for SNAP benefits and other

14        financial situations, they're trying to get their

15        unemployment, things of that nature, but again

16        without the eviction notice they're disqualified

17        from being a grantee.

18                   MR. RONAYNE:            We also find among the

19        SSVF providers that there is disparate

20        application of the rule across different

21        providers of SSVF.            We have several here in

22        downstate where if we have a veteran who has been

23        denied supports from one SSVF program they

24        literally go to a different SSVF provider and



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2         receive a different result, a different outcome.

3         That doesn't make any; it doesn't make any sense

4         at all to me.

5                    MR. SKINNER:            At Veterans Outreach

6         Center in Monroe County when they had SSVF grant

7         we were extremely successful with them and now

8         that it's changed hands I think five veterans

9         have slipped through the cracks.

10                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                           Okay,

11        thank you very much and just one more quick

12        question in regards to the executive order and

13        the nonpayment from your, for vendors.                            How is

14        that impacting you?

15                   MR. SKINNER:            I can tell you that I'm

16        receiving calls from extremely anxious veterans

17        that may reach the point of suicidal ideation

18        that may require, you know, public health

19        intervention and police intervention because

20        we're just waiting for that order to lift and all

21        of these landlords saying here you go, you got 30

22        days to pay up or get out.                  And that's anxious

23        for me knowing that these veterans at some point

24        will be at that point of okay, I cannot pay this



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2         back, and then dealing with the grant process in

3         that 30 day period is not going to be ideal

4         because again, you're going to flood the grantor

5         with applications and so Soldier On specifically,

6         covers several states with very few staff.                            So I

7         got a feeling there will be more crisis and

8         they'll be because of financial means.

9                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                           Thank you,

10        Chairs.

11                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

12        thank you and our final questioner will be

13        Michael Cusick.

14                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER MICHAEL CUSICK:                           Hi, hi

15        everyone, good to see, good to see my colleagues.

16        I want to thank my colleagues for taking part in

17        having this important hearing.                    I want to thank

18        the Chairs both of the assembly and the senate

19        for having this.           Also, to the panelists, thank

20        you for your service to our veterans.                         It is very

21        much appreciated by all of us in the legislature

22        and we know the hard work we do and I just want

23        to say a quick hello to my good friend and former

24        colleague, Ron Tocci; it's good to see you, Toch,



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2         and I hope everybody's doing well.                       I just have a

3         general question for the panelists.                        You know,

4         again, thank you for your information and your

5         input on the veteran's nursing homes and the

6         visits.    Many of us have been on these Zoom

7         meetings on nursing homes and the visitations and

8         we now can pinpoint areas that we can focus on as

9         legislatures.

10                   But a question I have for the panelists

11        is this might be the new normal for us for a

12        while with COVID, with the technology that we now

13        use with Zoom and other ways to get in contact

14        with people, I would believe that you are now,

15        you know, I think Mr. Skinner talked about how

16        one of the biggest requirements of your job is

17        reaching out and getting out there and contacting

18        with the veterans.            Do you think any of the

19        things we're doing now, you know, any of this

20        technology, maybe it needs to be streamlined,

21        maybe are these tools that we as a legislature

22        could help you as the advocates in fine tuning

23        and maybe reaching more veterans or is there, can

24        we fine tune to get veterans more help because,



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2         you know, again, this might be our new normal and

3         this might be the opportunity for us to work with

4         the tools we have to make your jobs maybe a

5         little bit easier?

6                    MR. SKINNER:            I would advocate for rural

7         broadband access as a --

8                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER CUSICK:                    There you go.

9                    MR. SKINNER:            -- option that if I could

10        get to the point.

11                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER CUSICK:                    There you go,

12        yep.

13                   MR. RONAYNE:            There is work being done

14        with regard to the legal ability of the New York

15        State Division of Veterans Affairs being

16        permitted to share discharge documents, DD214s

17        with county veteran service agencies.                         And that

18        in a COVID and going in hopefully to a very soon

19        to a post-COVID world that becomes extremely

20        important for the following reason.                        VA, while

21        they are an indispensable and irrefutably vital

22        partner in all that we do only serves 32% of

23        America's veterans.             The rest of America's

24        veterans have no relationship with VA and in many



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2         instances that is for good reason.                       Veterans may

3         have no need for those services.                      Veterans may

4         have private healthcare insurance that doesn't

5         necessitate them using VA services, but whenever

6         we talk to VA about outreach and communications,

7         contacting with veterans generally, when you get

8         the response that we are outreaching, we are

9         making contact with the community, we are out

10        there, the folks that they're communicating with

11        are the veterans who they're already aware of;

12        the veterans who are already in contact with VA

13        and who they have contact information with, e-

14        mail, telephone, etc.

15                   Those other two-thirds their contact

16        information resides at the various state veterans

17        services divisions across the nation.                         When a

18        service member is separated that discharge

19        document, that DD214 is transmitted to that

20        agency, but those agencies, at least in New York,

21        are not permitted to share them at the county

22        level and that outrage really should be occurring

23        at the county level.             Were we to have access to

24        that information we could directly, we can



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2         directly outreach to the veterans who have

3         returned to our counties who may or may not have

4         elected to establish a relationship with VA.                            So

5         the ability for us to access data that provides

6         contact and identifying information for veterans

7         is vitally important for us to be able to

8         complete our mission here.

9                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     So let me, let

10        me point that we in the assembly have just passed

11        that bill to do exactly that and I hope that our

12        colleagues in the senate will pass it.                            It passed

13        through my committee, we passed it a week ago, or

14        so ago on the floor of the assembly.                         So we heard

15        that at a prior hearing and we're getting it done

16        so.

17                   MR. RONAYNE:            Thank you, ma'am.

18                   MR. SKINNER:            Can I, I just want to add

19        even though I'm advocating broadband access for

20        rural communities, I will have to say that as the

21        director of this office I never want to see face

22        to face meetings go away with our veterans.

23        Often times people don't understand how difficult

24        it is to sit down with an 80 plus year old



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2         veteran and their family and discuss what a

3         pension is.       Pensions are more difficult than

4         applying for Medicaid.               There's a three year look

5         back, there's a lot of asset information,

6         sometimes the application can be a thousand pages

7         or more, and it's laborious, but there's too many

8         nuances that you cannot explain to an elderly

9         individual or someone with, you know, different

10        cognitive abilities and it really does take that

11        personal touch to sit one on one with a veteran

12        to explain a lot that we do.

13                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Right, thank

14        you, I agree.        I think we have run out of time

15        here and we now have another, a late entry, Brian

16        Manktelow, who wants to ask a question, thank

17        you.

18                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BRIAN MANKTELOW:                       Yes,

19        Jason, first of all thank you panelists for being

20        on today and thank you all for your service and

21        your dedication to our veterans.                      As a veteran

22        and as my son is a veteran as well, its most

23        appreciated.        Jason, back to the broadband, I

24        absolutely agree with you that one on one, face



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2         to face, that peer groups together is so vital to

3         our veterans, but at the same time in a situation

4         like this with COVID, and moving forward

5         hopefully, we won't see anything like this again,

6         but we could.

7                    Broadband is that, should that be a

8         priority as for [unintelligible] [01:47:43], a

9         problem.

10                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Seems like

11        we're having -- speaking of broadband.

12                   MR. SKINNER:            I would have to say yes,

13        based on his freezing up, that he needs

14        broadband.      So yes, you know, I didn't get the

15        last part of it because you did freeze, but I

16        think it does eliminate the need for it.

17                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER MANKTELOW:                      Can you hear

18        me now, Jason?

19                   MR. SKINNER:            Yes.

20                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER MANKTELOW:                      No, I know

21        that we need to have the one on one, absolutely.

22                   CMDSGT. MAJOR FLAHERTY:                    And I would to

23        that as an example, is that I have seven, I have

24        seven cases of military sexual trauma.                            One of



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2         the females that I have she had to come back,

3         this was before the COVID, she came back four

4         times before she'd even tell me what was her

5         problem just to make sure the touchy feeling was

6         there and the honesty of being able to open up

7         and tell her story.             So the one on one would, you

8         know, could never be substituted.                       Thank you.

9                    MR. SKINNER:            Actually, when it comes to

10        military sexual trauma cases, because, you know,

11        a lot of people don't realize the statistics are

12        51% reported by female, but 50% also reported by

13        males that serve and I myself have done male

14        military sexual trauma cases and for anyone to

15        divulge that it takes a relationship, it takes a

16        bedside manner and for them to open up and

17        actually finally go forward and be recognized and

18        get the benefits they deserve.

19                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER MANKTELOW:                      Absolutely,

20        I totally agree.           I just wanted that question out

21        there as we look at broadband for so many

22        different areas, I just want to make sure our

23        veterans will be covered and we keep them on the

24        forefront.      So thank you again for your time and



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2         again, thank you for your service.

3                    MR. SKINNER:            Thank you for all the

4         great questions.

5                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     I think that

6         wraps up this panel.             Thank you all.              This was a

7         great conversation and I thank you all for your

8         service and for the work you're doing and for

9         giving us the time and the benefit of your

10        insights and senator, you want to say anything?

11                   SENATOR BROOKS:              I just want to echo the

12        Chair's remarks about, you know, the benefits we

13        have here today, but most importantly what each

14        of you are doing day in and day out for that's

15        the absolute dedication you all have and

16        commitment.       We have to do a better job for our

17        vets collectively.            Certainly, we recognize with

18        the COVID situation there are very unique

19        challenges and I think I share with remarks of

20        many of you that hopefully we don't see an

21        escalation of this in the coming months.                          We have

22        to find better ways to fund these programs.                          We

23        have an absolute necessity to recognize the needs

24        of these people who and you who have given so



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2         much to preserve and protect our country.                           You

3         know, uniquely right now we're seeing some

4         challenges in terms of access to the ballot,

5         perhaps this year.              It's you, all of you, all of

6         the veterans that made sure we had the right to

7         exercise that right to vote.                     We've got to make

8         sure we protect that.

9                      To the virus, it's been a real challenge

10        across all planes, but we thank you for the

11        information you've given us today and we'll be

12        reaching out to you further, but God bless each

13        of you for what you give to all of those who

14        serve.     Thank you all very much.

15                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you and

16        stay well and stay safe.

17                     MR. SKINNER:            Thank you very much for

18        this opportunity, it's an honor.

19                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Our honor.

20                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Everybody have a great

21        day, please.

22                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you.

23                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, can we, we bring

24        in the next party?              Are the individuals for the



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2         Panel 3 in the, they're coming in now.

3                     FEMALE STAFF:            Panel 3 is in.

4                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, good, thank you

5         very much and good afternoon everyone.                            We want

6         to welcome you to what will be our third panel

7         discussion on the impact of the COVID violence,

8         virus, excuse me and our veterans programs.                               We

9         want to thank you for participating; we've had

10        some good discussions in the first group.                            We

11        anticipate seeing more from you or hearing more

12        from you.      So we appreciate you being here.                           I

13        want to give my co-Chair, Assemblywoman Barrett,

14        an opportunity to say a few words and then we'll,

15        we'll get into what you all have to say.

16                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    I just wanted

17        to echo the senators, welcome and thank you so

18        much for making time to be here and thank you for

19        the work that you do in this field and we look

20        forward to hearing your testimony, thank you.

21                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, so Coco, if we

22        can start with you and give you an opportunity to

23        address the group.            The way you'll do this is you

24        will all give your presentations and then we'll



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2         give it an opportunity for questions to be asked.

3         Remember, you each have five minutes assigned for

4         your presentation.            We ask that you try to stay

5         within those time constraints so that we can move

6         the program along and get to hear from everybody.

7         Thank you and Coco if [unintelligible] [01:53:50]

8                    MS. COCO CULHANE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR,

9         VETERANS ADVOCACY PROJECT:                  Good afternoon.

10        Thank you Chair Brooks, Chair Barrett and Chair

11        Hunter.    My name is Coco Culhane and I'm the

12        executive director of the Veteran Advocacy

13        Project or VAT for short.                 We provide free legal

14        services to veterans and their families with a

15        focus on those living with posttraumatic stress

16        and other mental health conditions.                        Our practice

17        ranges from, everything from to food stamps to

18        Department of Defense cases to death row.                         Thank

19        you so much for the opportunity to speak today.

20                   As Assembly Member Barrett said there

21        are so, way too many issues to effectively

22        address in such a short time, you know, crippling

23        budgets and the looming tsunami of evictions so

24        I'm going to focus on what VAT specializes in



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2         working with and that's veterans living with

3         mental health conditions and I really want to

4         focus on how so many veterans are being left

5         behind.    I make recommendations regarding the

6         challenges they're facing namely isolation from

7         information, disconnection from treatment and a

8         lack of access to the VA in a number of ways.

9         We've all adapted or are adapting to this virtual

10        world and the vast numbers of individuals who are

11        living in a kind of darkness, no access to the

12        internet.      One of our attorneys has been making

13        house calls because e-signature software that we

14        purchased is no use to a veteran without a

15        smartphone or a computer.

16                    In April the FCC relaxed the

17        documentation standards in order to access

18        Lifeline, which is the discount program where low

19        income individuals can get phones and internet

20        access, but where that was announced the FCC

21        announced it online and if you go to the website

22        for the entity that administers these plans you

23        click on training and outreach they offer

24        webinars, instructional videos online and



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2         newsletters via e-mail.                So, you know, while we

3         know there are some other ways that outreach is

4         being conducted it's a clear glaring gap there.

5         And another way that these veterans are isolated

6         is that as everyone is turning to telehealth, if

7         you don't have, again if you don't have

8         broadband, this was mentioned earlier you don't

9         have a laptop, you know, there's no way to do it

10        and even if you do what we are seeing amongst our

11        client population is frustration in trying to

12        figure out new technology and people giving up

13        and it just dissuades them from continuing their

14        care.

15                    You know, these things seem sort of

16        annoying and like small challenges to us, but it

17        really is a very serious jeopardy to the

18        wellbeing of the vulnerable subset of veterans

19        who are taking their lives at twice the rate of

20        the general population.                You know, whether or not

21        the number is 17 a day or 22, it just doesn't

22        matter.     The reason that they come to suicide

23        does and most susceptible among this group of

24        veterans are those who are involuntarily



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2         discharged based on misconduct, and the

3         statistics show that these men and women die by

4         suicide at nearly three times the rate of other

5         veterans.      So just not three times the rate of

6         the civilian population, but other veterans, and

7         a less than honorable discharge has been found to

8         be the second highest predictor of homelessness

9         just behind substance use and now you add a

10        pandemic where I know in New York City there's an

11        estimated one quarter of the population that

12        can't pay rent and you know, the devastating

13        effects are overwhelming, what is looming.                         And

14        when we look also at the population we serve

15        they've really been hit double hard because the

16        systemic problems that are making certain

17        populations more vulnerable to COVID-19 are the

18        same systemic issues that lead to less than

19        honorable discharges.

20                    You know, one study showed that black

21        service members are twice as likely to face

22        disciplinary action and court martial than white

23        service members.           You know, mental health

24        conditions cause disproportionately negative



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2         outcomes in service the same as in the civilian

3         world.     A government accountability office report

4         showed that from 2011 to 2015 of the veterans who

5         were discharged for misconduct 62% already had a

6         PTSD diagnosis or a related condition.                              So we

7         already knew they were suffering from a mental

8         health condition and we're punishing that.

9         Survivors of military sexual trauma are 50% more

10        likely to have a misconduct discharge.                              And what

11        all this amounts to is an injustice compounding

12        another injustice, you know, first during service

13        and then when they get out of service and they're

14        cut off from the VA and they're also saddled with

15        this stigma, this branding when they're trying to

16        get a job, you know, and the struggling every day

17        to get by.

18                     And then as a part of low-income

19        communities with higher mortality rates, more

20        criminal justice involvement and just wildly

21        unequal access to healthcare.                      So the effects of

22        the pandemic hit them again and I want to just

23        give one client story, I know I'm out of town,

24        but just this really I think, puts a face on some



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2         of these issues.           We have a Marine who served in

3         Vietnam and I called him two nights ago, he's a

4         client of mine, and I asked how he was doing and

5         he said, there's a lot of pain, and he was

6         referring to the Black Lives Matter

7         demonstrations that he's been a part of.                          He was

8         referring to his mental health and he was

9         referring to his service and he said to me, you

10        know, as a black man in the south you got to

11        understand back then I couldn't report anything.

12        There are only two secrets I've carried my entire

13        life, my discharge and my rape.                     And he explained

14        to me how his whole life, his buddies will ask

15        well, why aren't you at the VA, why aren't you

16        getting benefits, and he says, well I don't need

17        that, but he got Coronavirus in May and couldn't

18        say those words any more, and so the weight of

19        all of this really has hit him.                     He, when I asked

20        him what about the PTSD program we connected you

21        with, he said, you know, figuring out that camera

22        thing was just too much, and so he has stopped

23        going to his therapy and I'm the only person he's

24        talking to and as a lawyer I shouldn't be, right.



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2                     So I know out of time, I will just say

3         that that I think that if we invest more in, and

4         I think the previous panel stated this as well,

5         that if you invest more in working on VA claims

6         not only for those who need digital access, who

7         need those benefits, compensation claims with

8         those who need character of discharge where the

9         federal dollars that come in are exponentially

10        worth the investment, is worth the investment in

11        terms of mental health, housing subsidies, all of

12        the things that come with that and also resources

13        for this digital divide as well, and thank you

14        for the opportunity.              I'm sorry, I went over

15        time.

16                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you very

17        much.    Solomon, if we could hear from you.

18                    MR. SOLOMON CHOUICHA, STAFF ATTORNEY,

19        LEGAL SERVICES OF THE HUDSON VALLEY:                          I'm Solomon

20        Chouicha, I'm a staff attorney at the Legal

21        Services of the Hudson Valley.                     We provide free

22        civil legal assistance to moderate and low income

23        individuals including veterans throughout the

24        [unintelligible] [02:01:26] to lower Hudson



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2         Valley region.         I would like to thank Karen

3         Brooke, Chairwoman Barrett, Chairwoman Hunter as

4         well as ranking members Ritchie and Ashby for

5         allowing me to speak this morning.                       I would like

6         to highlight a few areas of concern with the

7         secular veteran populations that we assist

8         veterans with.         One is income maintenance, the

9         other is housing.

10                   Among the work that we do at Legal

11        Services of Hudson Valley is assist veterans with

12        VA disability, appeals, including

13        [unintelligible] [02:02:06] to that work is

14        assisting veterans with discharge upgrade like

15        Ms. Culhane had stated, helping veterans who have

16        other than honorable discharges or was known as

17        bad paper, [unintelligible] [02:02:17] serves a

18        barrier to getting VA benefits or VA healthcare.

19        And housing especially in the Hudson Valley

20        region has become more critical as rents are

21        rising.    As, you know, the individuals have been

22        moving north from New York City area, landlords

23        have been increasing rents as often, putting

24        significant pressure on our veterans to our off



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2         and on [unintelligible] [02:02:47] income often,

3         disabled veterans all their benefits, all their

4         income is solely sometimes only from VA, from VA

5         disability benefits, disability benefits or

6         sometimes a combination Social Security as well

7         as VA disability benefits.

8                     This, you know, recently I had a veteran

9         contact me who lived in the Fishtail, Lofenger

10        [phonetic] in [unintelligible] [02:03:13] county.

11        His landlord, he was paying about $950 in rent,

12        his landlord recently increased his rent to

13        $1200, which now comprises 50% of his income.

14        Again, all his income is, is veteran's disability

15        benefits.      This past week, we had another

16        disabled veteran contact our organization.                         He

17        lived in a mobile home park.                   His family had been

18        assisting him with paying the lot rent at the

19        park, unfortunately, due to the pandemic is

20        family is no longer able to provide him that

21        financial assistance.              Now currently, he's paying

22        about 67% of his income, which comprises solely

23        of veteran's disability benefits on his housing.

24                    I would like, you know, I know in the



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2         prior panel it was talked about the SSVF grant

3         program, which is a federal program that provides

4         assistance to veterans who face imminent risk of

5         homelessness when, you know, which is a great

6         program in the Hudson Valley area administered by

7         a nonprofit organization called [unintelligible]

8         [02:04:25], but the, unfortunately, the

9         [unintelligible] [02:04:29] federal program is

10        needs tested and there are strict income

11        guidelines with, you know, to qualify for that

12        assistance.       So often if the veterans, let's say

13        100% service connected disabled that might put

14        him or her over the income when they qualify for

15        SSVF assistance.           There are some nonprofits,

16        veterans charities [unintelligible] [02:05:00].

17        One, I would echo [unintelligible] [02:05:04]

18        Dwyer vet program we have back here in Dutchess

19        County where I work, it's a phenomenal program.

20        They receive some funding from the state as well

21        as from the county, but given, you know, the

22        looming eviction crises, unemployment crisis, I'm

23        finally, you know, working with the spouse of a

24        veteran who recently lost her job, that was out



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2         in Ulster County.

3                    I think there is [unintelligible]

4         [02:05:34] a significant need for both affordable

5         housing, some [unintelligible] [02:05:39] housing

6         for veterans as well as for providing them with

7         free legal assistance to help them with their

8         eviction [unintelligible] [02:05:46], appeal

9         their disability denials and help protect their

10        rights and help them secure all the benefits that

11        they've earned through their service.                         Thank you

12        for your time.

13                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you.           Dao, if

14        you'll take an opportunity to make your

15        presentation, please.

16                   MR. DAO SUN, SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY,

17        LEGAL SERVICES NEW YORK CITY:                    Yes, Chair, thank

18        you.   Good afternoon everyone, my name is Dao

19        Sun.   I am a senior staff attorney with the

20        Veterans Justice Project at Legal Services New

21        York City.      I want to thank the committee for

22        allowing us to testify at this hearing.                           I also

23        want to thank the committee as a veteran, all you

24        do for veterans across the state.                       We also wanted



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2         to thank Chair Barrett and the veterans committee

3         for your support with our Veterans Justice

4         Project.     Without the funding that we received we

5         would not be able to serve over 3000 veterans and

6         their family members over the past year.                            This

7         equates to around half a million dollars' worth

8         of benefits to our clients.

9                     The Legal Service NYC is the largest

10        free legal services provider in the nation.                               We

11        serve over 110,000 New Yorkers every year.                            We

12        have offices across all five boroughs.                            Legal

13        services, Legal Service NYC created the Veterans

14        Justice Project to serve low income veterans,

15        active duty service members and their family

16        members with any civil legal matters that they

17        may have.      One major civil legal issue that we

18        see with veterans during this pandemic has been

19        income security.           To address this need we have

20        been helping veterans and their family members

21        with applications for government benefits.                            This

22        includes Social Security applications as well as

23        public assistance applications and food stamps.

24                    Another major need that we see for



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2         veterans during this pandemic is housing.

3         Housing Court in New York has been closed for the

4         past few months, but they are slowly opening back

5         up and as housing court opens back up there will

6         be more nonpayment cases and holdover proceedings

7         filed by landlords against veterans, just due to

8         the backlog.        So we anticipate an uptick in the

9         need for housing assistance for veterans in New

10        York City and we're working with our community

11        partners to address that anticipated uptick.

12        During this pandemic LSNY has also seen an

13        increase in cost from veterans that request who

14        are requesting assistance which has support

15        modifications.         This could be downward child

16        support modifications or upward child support

17        modifications.

18                   As many of you may know child support

19        arrearage [unintelligible] [02:08:49] child

20        support arrearage have adverse effects on

21        veterans, which could mean that their driver's

22        license could be suspended, their passport could

23        be suspended.        Without a driver's license a lot

24        of veterans will have a difficult time going to



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2         their daily appointments or even going to their

3         employment, which will even more reduce their

4         income.    COVID-19 has had a tremendous adverse

5         impact on the veteran's community and we're doing

6         all we can on the civil legal side to assist

7         veterans with those issues.                  Of the veterans who

8         contact LSNY for help during this pandemic, 70%

9         have been people of color, 50% of these vets have

10        been disabled vets.

11                   Veterans have sacrificed so much for us

12        the very least we can do, the very least we can

13        do as a community to ensure that they free access

14        to justice.       This means assistance with housing,

15        with income security, family law matters.                          A

16        criminal defendant has a right to an attorney, I

17        believe being a veteran myself that veterans who

18        need assistance with any civil legal matter

19        should be able to have the same kind of

20        representation.          Thank you again for the

21        opportunity to testify before this committee.                             We

22        look forward to working with the committee to

23        ensure that the veterans, veterans get the

24        support to meet their civil legal needs.                          Thank



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2         you.

3                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you all for your

4         comments and your presentation.                     Collectively,

5         we'll have a series of questions for you, try to

6         drill down a little bit further on some of the

7         information and concerns that everyone has.                            You

8         know, while we're centering on COVID related

9         problems, one question that I would have as we

10        look and so many times we have people who have

11        been discharged, separated from service that run

12        into many different types of problems getting

13        back into, if you will, civilian life.                            One of

14        the questions I have, a little bit away from the

15        COVID aspect, but maybe it should be something

16        we're considering what's going on.                       Do we do a

17        good job preparing people for separation from

18        service and what they're going to face in the

19        outside world?         And in particular now where some

20        folks are being discharged during a time of such

21        significant economic and health challenges should

22        we be doing more as someone is about to separate

23        from service to avoid some of the challenges that

24        they're facing right now?



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2                    MR. SUN:         Being a veteran myself I can

3         tell you that when I was, when I separated from

4         the Navy I wasn't provided with a lot of

5         information.        The only information I was given

6         was the GI bill, to use it, but they didn't

7         provide any guidance they need, Navy didn't

8         provide me guidance on how to use it, other

9         benefits I might have to the VA.                      So I would say

10        that service members are not well prepared when

11        they leave the military.                Also, they're not given

12        training on how to adjust to the civilian world.

13        A lot of service members been in the military for

14        at least four years so that's a very long time in

15        military culture, and civilian culture is

16        different.      And the military doesn't provide that

17        kind of training on how to transition from the

18        military to the civilian world, and I think

19        that's something that we can work on to help

20        service members who are coming home.

21                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Anyone else?              Okay, I'd

22        like to give our co-chair Barrett an opportunity

23        to ask some questions.

24                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,



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2         senator; thank you panelists.                      I wanted to just

3         sort of address, I want to ask Coco a particular

4         question about the resources for the work that

5         she does, which is just so profound and tense and

6         whether at, you know, New York State is doing an

7         adequate job of, and, you know, the other

8         resources to allow you to do that and then I want

9         to shift over to Dao and Solomon and ask you if

10        you could talk to us a little bit about the

11        differences in upstate and downstate as both

12        legal services providers, if you, you know, have

13        a sense of are the needs different or, you know,

14        are we looking at, you know, different ways to

15        address things in these different parts of the

16        state.     So let's start with Coco.

17                     MS. CULHANE:            Hi, yeah thank you.             So as

18        far as I'm aware there are no state services.                           I

19        mean, I think, you know, New York State Division

20        of Veterans Services has started doing some

21        discharge work.            You know, I did a training

22        yesterday for their annual training session with

23        both, I think DVS and some county service

24        officers on character of discharge work, but we



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2         have a wait list that we've now paired down to

3         330 names because we are screening and we only

4         take cases connected to a traumatic experience.

5         But, you know, if we took every case I think

6         we've had 1300 people call us because there's

7         really nowhere else to go.                  You know, there are

8         law school clinics throughout the state but they

9         can take one or two cases a year, including mine.

10        It's just not an effective means.

11                   New York City did announce a discharge

12        upgrade grant, a contract last year on Veterans

13        Day and we're waiting to hear what's going on

14        with that, where the funding is at.                        So I just, I

15        think the return on investment if we can train

16        more advocates, if we can get more people doing

17        this, you know, it's well over $3 million over a

18        lifetime of benefits, housing and, you know,

19        education benefits can change a life psychology,

20        right, you're making a profound impact.                           So I

21        think it's something that is worth the state

22        investing in and in just in terms of statewide,

23        you know, I get calls from every county.                          I was

24        e-mailing this morning someone from Yates County,



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2         you know, it's a problem that is not about

3         geographic location at all and there, you know,

4         New York City is obviously very lucky in terms of

5         the resources we have, so many programs that we

6         connect our veterans to.                And something that

7         we're actually launching soon is actually just

8         going around to community health clinics around

9         the state and talking to them about serving

10        veterans and about working, you know, creating

11        more medical legal partnerships and addressing

12        these issues so that more veterans can get access

13        to care.     So it's something that we're hoping we

14        can have a small impact on in the coming year.

15                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

16        thank you.      Now Solomon, you want to talk about

17        upstate and compared to what Dao says about

18        downstate.

19                   MR. CHOUICHA:             Sure, I think one of the

20        big differences between perhaps individual living

21        in the New York City area versus living in the

22        mid-Hudson area, is there's a probably a lot,

23        there is probably a lot more resources

24        organizations, charitable organizations, you



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2         know, legal service organizations in the New York

3         City area whereas opposed to up in the mid-Hudson

4         regions in terms, there's a lot fewer charitable

5         organizations that can help with rent arrears.

6         Legal Services of the Hudson Valley is the only

7         provider of free civil legal assistance in the

8         mid-Hudson region.            I would say also a big

9         difference between the New York City area and

10        mid-Hudson is dealing with transportation issues.

11        I was just in Brooklyn and did I know there were

12        issues, you know, with the MTA, but it's, you

13        know, for a system that runs 24/7 it covers, you

14        know, five boroughs, you know, you can get around

15        pretty easily whereas opposed to in Dutchess

16        County you have some urban areas like the City of

17        Poughkeepsie [unintelligible] [02:18:13] you go

18        to northern or eastern Dutchess it's sometimes

19        rural, the buses that don't work that well and

20        trying to navigate sort of bus system, we're

21        relying on friends or neighbors to give you a

22        lift if you have to go meet with a legal aid

23        attorney or meet with a veterans counselor, it's

24        a lot more challenging.



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2                    Where even, even if you just have a

3         court appearance in town village or I've had some

4         clients sometimes tell me that they, you know,

5         they didn't have [unintelligible] [02:18:46] they

6         couldn't, both veterans and our veterans they

7         just, you know, have to walk a mile or two just

8         to get to the county village courthouse if they,

9         for whatever appearance they had.

10                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     I'm afraid

11        we're out of time, but thank you all for those

12        answers and I think Dao you talked a lot about

13        the challenges just in New York City so I think

14        we have a point of comparison there.                         Senator?

15                   SENATOR BROOKS:              If given an

16        opportunity, co-chair Hunter, if she has any

17        questions?

18                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Thank you,

19        senator.     I just wanted Coco, I guess, and the

20        rest of you as we're talking about the legal

21        services, but other than honorable discharge

22        veterans are they included in all of the veterans

23        statistic information that we receive?                            So if

24        you're talking about 20 veterans who commit



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2         suicide per day does that include those veterans

3         as well?

4                      MS. CULHANE:            Yes, it does.             I think

5         some its, it depends on the source, right?                           And

6         they change the way they measure these things,

7         which is why the VA has changed it now to 17 per

8         day, and the other problem is, you know, the VA

9         has their data and then states have entirely

10        different ways of collecting data and so it's

11        difficult to get a reliable number.

12                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Does New York

13        State include other than in their numbers, other

14        than honorable in their numbers?

15                     MS. CULHANE:            I don't actually know, I

16        would assume so, but I don't actually know who is

17        responsible for collecting that data in New York

18        State.

19                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    And you all

20        were talking about there's obviously a

21        significant housing rental crisis and I know just

22        from where I live many of the people when you see

23        them panhandling are, many of the people are

24        veterans and when you have conversations with



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2         them, many of them are other than honorable

3         discharge veterans and they are locked out of

4         many veteran's services, housing, you know,

5         obviously some of the hospital, you know, VA

6         services and so their need is actually more than

7         just a regular indigent person because they're

8         locked out of many of the services.                        So I know we

9         always talk about what piece of legislation can

10        help and, you know, what are some of the

11        challenges, but we're talking about crisis now

12        that impact veterans relative, whether they're

13        honorable discharged or not, what specifically

14        can we do today to help the folks, you know, that

15        are on the edge?           You're talking about, you know,

16        the folks who are on the edge with suicide,

17        they're on the edge of eviction and I know maybe

18        you're going to say money, which is very sparse,

19        you know, but really at this point what is it

20        that we can specifically do to help someone not

21        be evicted, not, you know, be on the verge of

22        suicide because I'm very, very concerned that

23        there's this lost maybe invisible population that

24        we're not even having conversations about.                         Thank



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2         you.

3                      MS. CULHANE:            Yeah, I mean, I will say

4         one good thing and this is a good news about

5         money.     So we subcontract with a couple of the

6         SSVF providers in New York City and so I know

7         that OTH is eligible for these arrears and these

8         different funds.             So they've really over the

9         years with some advocacy, they've really opened

10        up those definitions and that allows a lot of

11        veterans.        The other thing is the VA has come in

12        with emergency funds during COVID and has done

13        really a phenomenal job of helping to relocate

14        veterans out of shelters because, you know, the

15        first veteran died in the veterans program

16        [unintelligible] [02:22:46] shelter in the last

17        week of March and then our clients fled.                            So in

18        my mind and this, you know, everything takes

19        money, but communication to go back to like there

20        are resources out there and it's true that

21        veterans with less than honorable discharges are

22        much more limited.              They face so much stigma, so

23        much, they carry a lot of shame, many of them,

24        but I think that if we do a better job talking



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2         about the resources that already exist that we

3         can, we can have an impact on those suicide

4         numbers and we can change lives.

5                    MR. SUN:         I agree with everything Coco

6         said and I would just add that, you know, having

7         representation matters whether its housing court

8         or whether it's before the VA or Social Security

9         or any federal or state agency when you're

10        fighting for your benefits.                  So that's why I

11        believe, you know, every veteran who needs

12        representation in a civil legal matter should be

13        able to get it regardless of their discharge

14        character, honorable or non-honorable, it

15        shouldn't matter, and it shouldn't matter where

16        they live or what their income is.                       If they need

17        assistance and representation with these civil

18        legal matters they should get it just like they

19        would receive representation in a criminal

20        matter.

21                   MR. CHOUICHA:             I would echo what my

22        fellow panelist said as well.                    The efficacy

23        program that the, that is administered in the

24        Hudson Valley region they'll provide assistance



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2         to veterans so long as their character of

3         discharge is not dishonorable, if they have some

4         other discharge that could be general or other

5         than honorable, we would provide assistance with

6         that on administering the program.                       So I would

7         echo what Mr. Sun said about [unintelligible]

8         [02:24:47] I think it's also critical especially

9         more in the upstate regions where you have town

10        and village courts where sometimes the judges

11        presiding over an eviction proceeding is not an

12        attorney at all and is not really versed in the

13        law or versed in the procedures.                      You know,

14        housing law can be very complex, there's

15        different rules and regulations applying to

16        mobile home parks, applying to federally subsided

17        housing, applying to private rentals.                         Often

18        times, you know, because we'll defer to the

19        landlord's attorney and you know, 90% of the time

20        or 99% of the time the landlord [unintelligible]

21        [02:25:35] an attorney while the tenants are not.

22        So I definitely echo what, about providing

23        representation for tenants in housing court and

24        I've actually been doing more training for the



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2         non-attorney judges that are presiding over those

3         proceedings in the town and village court.

4                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Thank you.

5                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, now we'll hear

6         from ranker in the senate, Senator Ritchie, any

7         questions?

8                    SENATOR RITCHIE:               Just one question,

9         quick question on broadband.                   Can you just

10        explain, you probably don't have the numbers,

11        especially statewide, but it's, I represent a

12        pretty rural area and on a daily basis I hear

13        about broadband questions and really the veteran

14        part of that issue has not come up.                        So if you

15        could just address how far and wide that is, that

16        would be helpful for me.

17                   MS. CULHANE:            Sure, I would not claim to

18        be an expert on this, if you go to the, the

19        program is called Lifeline and it's administered

20        by I think its Universal Administration

21        something, I can get the information to you.

22        It's oh, Universal Service Administration Company

23        and you can find a lot of data there and they

24        work, you know, a part of their working with the



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2         FCC to provide these and you'll hear sometimes

3         it's also, I think it's also tied to phones that

4         individuals get through Medicaid, people call

5         them Obama phones, you know, in our area.                             But

6         they also provide internet access and are working

7         on rural issues and working on that.                           So I

8         apologize, I'm not an expert, but I can send you

9         information.

10                     SENATOR RITCHIE:               Thank you very much,

11        thank you Chair.

12                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay and giving an

13        opportunity to our ranker in the assembly,

14        Assemblyman Ashby.

15                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   No questions at

16        this time, all of them were answered.

17                     SENATOR BROOKS:              If there are any other

18        members on the committees that are interested in

19        asking a question, if they could turn their video

20        screen on so we could see them that would be

21        great.

22                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   None at this

23        time, senator.

24                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you all



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2         very much.      We wish to thank each of you for your

3         presentation.        The information you provided I

4         think that this is an ongoing discussion for the

5         needs of funding.           I think we all recognize that,

6         that's something we have to look hard at.                         I give

7         co-chair Barrett an opportunity if she has any

8         closing remarks.

9                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    Just no, I

10        want to thank you all for the work that you do

11        and thank you for making the time to be with us

12        and I think we're ready to move onto to the next

13        panel, thank you.

14                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay so --

15                    MS. CULHANE:           Thank you.

16                    SENATOR BROOKS:             -- again, we thank you

17        all very much and if the folks associated with

18        panel 4 could be brought into the room that would

19        be great.      It looks like we're missing one more

20        individual, not sure if they're available.

21                    MALE STAFF:          We're waiting for her to

22        turn on her camera.             We can start as we wait for

23        that, senator.

24                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, very good.           Good



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2         afternoon, everyone and we want to welcome you to

3         this hearing by the Veterans Committees of both

4         the Senate and the Assembly as well as well as

5         the Women's Veterans Committee.                     We're exploring

6         issues associated with the COVID virus and how it

7         impacted the various services that you provide to

8         our veterans.        We thank you for the work you do

9         and the contribution you make to these

10        outstanding individuals.                We'll try to move this

11        along at a good rate.              We'll ask each of you to

12        make a five minute presentation and then when

13        everybody is completed we'll open up to questions

14        from the participants in the hearing and if you

15        can keep close to that five minutes it makes

16        things a little bit easier.                  I'd like to start

17        with Mr. Haynie and begin with his presentation.

18                    MR. J. MICHAEL HAYNIE, VICE CHANCELLOR

19        OF STRATEGIC INITIATIVES AND INNOVATION, SYRACUSE

20        UNIVERSITY, INSTITUTE FOR VETERANS AND MILITARY

21        FAMILIES:      Thank you so much, Major Brooks, Chair

22        Barrett, Chair Hunter, committee members, thank

23        you for the opportunity to present today and

24        thank you for your efforts on behalf of New York



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2         City's veterans and military families.                            As often

3         happens in the face of economic and social

4         disruption, the veteran and military connected

5         community has been harder hit than others during

6         the COVID emergency.             The, as evidence of that

7         the veteran unemployment rate in New York State

8         in July was nearly 15%, that's twice the national

9         average of veteran unemployment across the United

10        States.

11                   Over the course of the summer in

12        partnership with the military times publications

13        the Institute for Veterans and Military Families

14        here at Syracuse University launched a series of

15        national polls among veterans and military

16        connected family members to understand

17        specifically the effects of COVID on the veteran

18        and military connected community.                       And the trends

19        we are seeing we believe then form our efforts

20        here in [unintelligible] [02:32:15].                         I'd like to

21        share a couple of those key findings with you.

22        First, our polling indicates that women veterans

23        are much more likely to indicate pressing needs

24        related to social service and economic supports



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2         in the context of the COVID health emergency.

3         Over half of the women veterans that responded to

4         the series of polls indicate inadequate mental

5         health support at a rate nearly twice that of

6         male veterans as one example.                      Initially,

7         veterans of color represented or reported higher

8         percentages of social and economic need in every

9         single resource category that we polled on,

10        that's compared to white veterans.                         Veterans of

11        color were more likely to report needing support

12        in areas of food, nutrition, housing benefits,

13        claims assistance and mental health.

14                     You know, so all of this together we

15        were asking what do we do with this information.

16        What we did with it at the [unintelligible]

17        [02:33:14] really transitioned the structure of

18        our efforts in response to COVID in four key

19        areas.     That the coordination of services within

20        communities here in New York State and outside of

21        New York State.            Careers and skills training

22        preparation programs to support the employment

23        situation of veterans, support for veteran

24        entrepreneurs.           Veteran business owners have been



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2         hit hard by the COVID crisis many of them create

3         businesses that are consumer based and that

4         retail and service industry, you know, read of

5         failure of veteran business owners during this

6         crisis has been significant.

7                     And then also doing what I'm doing

8         today, engaging with leaders across New York

9         State to advocate on behalf of veterans and

10        [unintelligible] [02:34:01] crisis.

11        Specifically, communities will play a critical

12        role.    Our America Serves networks across the

13        country and in New York State are seeing a

14        shifting need from clients, veterans and their

15        families requesting more tangible services, food,

16        clothing, income support as opposed to what we

17        usually see, which is more focused on housing and

18        employment support.              Our career skill training

19        program for [unintelligible] [02:34:29] we moved

20        all of those online to meet the ongoing

21        employment needs of transitioning service

22        members, military members who have labor market

23        connected credentials and certifications.                          We've

24        also worked to create virtual environments to



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2         help veterans find ways to connect with new

3         opportunities.

4                    Finally, we've also been heavily engaged

5         with leaders throughout New York State and our

6         participation in the governor's challenged and

7         veteran's suicide.            Today with high unemployment

8         and tense social isolation and other stressors

9         this work is as critical as ever.                       So to wrap

10        this up, all of this is to say the underlying or

11        under [unintelligible] [02:35:07] theme what

12        we've learned about the veterans community from

13        this crisis is the need for tailored and systems

14        level of coordination of services and policies.

15        State government helping human services, labor,

16        veteran's affairs must work together with local

17        governments, nonprofits and [unintelligible]

18        [02:35:26] community across the state around the

19        common agenda.

20                   Again, initiatives like the governors

21        challenge to end veteran suicide or a good model

22        for driving this sort of necessary of

23        collaboration, the legislation should help

24        sustain those solutions proposed throughout that,



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2         through that effort and I think in my final point

3         is that I think we all do well to remember that

4         this virus and the collateral damage that it is

5         causing is effecting many veterans in many ways,

6         but not all veterans equally.                     Our solutions must

7         be coordinated and tailored in response to that

8         fact.    Thank you very much and I look forward to

9         the rest of the panel.

10                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you very much.

11        Staff Sergeant Fitzgerald.

12                    STAFF SERGEANT JAMES FITZGERALD,

13        EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NYC VETERANS ALLIANCE:                           I

14        appreciate being able to join you today.                           Thank

15        you to the Chairs and committees for this

16        opportunity to testify today.                     My name is James

17        Fitzgerald, I'm a 9 year veteran of the United

18        States Army, achieving the rank of staff

19        sergeant.       My military career, my military

20        service career spans combat deployments to Iraq

21        and Afghanistan with various assignments with

22        well-renowned military units such as the 101st

23        Airborne.       While deployed to Afghanistan with the

24        101st Airborne, I was seriously injured during



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2         combat operations and after a hard felt recovery,

3         was medically discharged from active duty in

4         2014.

5                     Experiencing many of the hardships and

6         obstacles firsthand, I was activated to stay with

7         my fellow veterans as they navigated many of the

8         same circumstances during their transition

9         journey.      I live in Brooklyn and I'm proud to

10        call New York my home.                I'm the Deputy Director

11        of NYC Veterans Alliance, a member driven,

12        grassroots advocacy and community building

13        organization that connects, advocates for and

14        empowers veterans and their family members to

15        make change as civic leaders.                     We work with more

16        than 150 different organizations serving

17        veterans, military members and their families in

18        the New York City metro area to consolidate

19        events and resources online at our veterans.nyc.

20        We advocate for veterans and families locally in

21        New York City and our members were instrumental

22        in the creation of the New York City Department

23        of Veteran Services as well as spear heading the

24        addition of protection for veterans and service



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2         members in New York City's Human Rights Law.

3                     The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in

4         extraordinary impacts to the New York veteran

5         community since initial cases were reported in

6         early March 2020.           A slowed government response

7         demanded community organizations pick up an

8         increased burden in order to feel essential

9         support gaps and provide the key resources needed

10        by families during the pandemic.                      On March 19

11        through 21st, NYC Veterans Alliance asked

12        veterans and family members for their feedback in

13        an online survey on how the COVID-19 emergency

14        was effecting them and what type of help they

15        required.      The survey results from 208

16        respondents, spoke to wide array of growing

17        concerns with top responses being preventing the

18        spread of the Coronavirus to the their loved ones

19        and continuing to maintain food resources in

20        their household after losing their financial

21        security.

22                    To manage these overwhelming community

23        needs, NYC Veterans Alliance launched the

24        Veterans Mutual Aid NYC Metro Program; a network



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2         for in taking coordination of incoming request

3         from veterans and families and other members in

4         need.    Veterans, military members and their

5         spouses and family members and gold star families

6         were able to receive the help that was notably

7         lacking from city agencies tasked with that

8         responsibility.           To date over $15,000 in direct

9         assistance has been provided to over 140 veteran

10        families throughout the New York City metro area.

11        This aid includes over $6100 in groceries to

12        veteran families in need and over $7200 spent on

13        housing assistance for at risk homeless veterans.

14                    Social isolation remained at high levels

15        during the pandemic also as a large portion of

16        the veteran community especially older veterans

17        lived alone or did not have immediate family

18        available.       Our Veterans Mutual Aid Program

19        activated to perform the vital outreach to

20        distribute key information and provide a lifeline

21        to each veteran in need.                 With over 1800 recorded

22        veteran interactions, the pandemic has displayed

23        how fundamental social contact is to our lives

24        and how important it is to maintain open



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2         communications channels to stay informed of

3         current community needs.                COVID-19 underscores

4         the necessity of strengthening our city and state

5         outreach efforts to rebuild and sustain the

6         social needs of the veteran population, a task

7         that will be critical to our recovery from the

8         pandemic.

9                     In order to gain a full understanding of

10        the impacts, I recommend a detailed study be

11        conducted and presented to the public addressing

12        COVID-19 related social isolation and loneliness

13        effects to identify working solutions from long

14        term and short term models.                  We created NYC

15        Veterans Mutual Aid to serve a community in

16        crisis.    We've had more than 18 volunteer

17        veterans who are members of our organization

18        volunteering to make phone calls to coordinate

19        grocery deliveries, to talk to veterans worried

20        and in need and they've spent hours of their time

21        helping others with tasks that otherwise no one

22        would help with.           Our program has been a last

23        resort.    When we started up this program in March

24        NYC Department of Veterans Services wasn't



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2         communicating directly with veterans about the

3         pandemic and veterans expressed to us that it was

4         difficult to get in touch, in touch with staff.

5         Meanwhile, veterans were telling us they were

6         jobless, hungry, worried about their health and

7         in some cases barely hanging on their housing.

8                    We heard from one veteran that was

9         trying to get out of homelessness that NYCHA had

10        effectively stopped appointments for housing,

11        leaving him in limbo with no government agency

12        giving him and answers.               He was left with no

13        options or financial means to safely shelter in

14        place until he connected with our volunteers.

15        Our Veteran Mutual Aid Program placements with

16        secure locations so we can safely shelter in

17        place; our support was needed for 25 nights

18        before additional support was available to move

19        him into more permanent housing.                      The need for

20        our extended support was due to the lack and

21        resources available to quickly and effectively

22        house our at risk homeless veterans.                         Without our

23        support this veteran would not have received the

24        necessary housing support for them to make it



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2         through the pandemic.                We also heard from a

3         disabled veteran who needed to move himself and

4         his children from one NYCHA apartment into

5         another at the height of the horrific death toll

6         in New York City with no resources at all offered

7         from the city.           He cannot afford the expenses and

8         he was not physically able to even do the packing

9         he needed to make the move.                    We raised the funds,

10        coordinated with veteran movers, a local company

11        staffed by veterans and we paid them a very fair

12        price to do the job of helping this veteran get

13        his family and service dog moved into a new

14        place.

15                     He said our assistance was invaluable to

16        his family and without our vital support he did

17        not know how he would get his family into their

18        home.     This family needed additional resources to

19        ensure all household goods were transported

20        safely, but can find that additional support

21        through government services.

22                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, we've exceeded

23        the time.        I don't mean to interrupt you, but we

24        want to give an opportunity to give a



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2         presentation and the question and answer period

3         we can, we can extend an opportunity for you to

4         address any issues if you want to do that.

5         Ashton?

6                    MR. ASHTON STEWART, MANAGER, SAGE

7         VETERANS PROGRAM:           Thank you Senator Brooks.

8         Thank you Assembly Member Barrett and also thank

9         you so much Senator Ritchie.                   I'm so sorry about

10        the loss of your father, my thoughts go out to

11        you for healing and peace for you and your

12        family.    And I also wanted to take the

13        opportunity to thank you for your office giving

14        me a wonderful introduction to the 10th Mountain

15        Division this year at Fort Drum and we

16        participated in our very first pride month event

17        with the base and it was wonderful.                        They were

18        honoring the patriotism of the U.S. military for

19        LGBT members past and present who have fought

20        bravely to protect our nation and ensure equality

21        for all who call America home.

22                   My name is Ashton Stewart,

23        [unintelligible] [02:44:16], I'm the SAGE Vets

24        program manager and SAGE Vets is a program that



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2         exists thanks to the support from the legislature

3         and we help elder LGBT veterans get access to

4         programs to improve their lives and we also work

5         with veteran service providers to help them

6         address some of the unique challenges faced by

7         this group.       Breaking down discrimination and

8         prejudice has always been a challenge in this

9         role working with SAGE and SAGE Vets, but it

10        seems like it's been kicked up a notch due to the

11        pandemic.      I would attribute it to just people's

12        stress, people have been pushed to their limits

13        with this thing and there's just a little bit

14        more desperation out there.

15                    So in order to address that, we've been

16        very careful to always let people share their

17        voices and I've always been open to hearing

18        comments about why people feel discriminated

19        against, LGBT veterans is okay or anybody in

20        general, but you know, I feel like it's important

21        to keep that dialogue going because what usually

22        happens is they start to say well I do have a

23        friend that's LGBT or a neighbor or a family

24        member and then suddenly you have that



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2         opportunity to create change.                    A lots going on

3         with COVID, a lot of the speakers talking today

4         addressed a lot of these issues and yes,

5         isolation is key to all of this.                      It's something

6         that's effected elder LGBT adults historically,

7         but we're seeing it permeate into the whole

8         veteran service safety net.                  It's making

9         everything a little bit more challenging, the

10        whole thing of quarantining, working remotely has

11        really put a lot of agencies and service

12        providers in a whole new spotlight to try to

13        figure out how to deliver these services.

14                   And in the meantime, we're seeing an

15        increase in anxiety and depression and certainly

16        suicide ideation.           In fact, I was helping

17        somebody this week get enrolled in the VA, a

18        Marine who served in the first gulf war, he tried

19        to take his life last week and fortunately he did

20        not, so I've been working with him, I consider

21        him a friend, and the VA is most equipped at

22        dealing with depression and mental health issues

23        with the veterans and as also addressed today a

24        lot of veterans don't pursue health from the VA



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2         for, for one reason or another.                     I'll get into

3         that a little bit more, and also they're not as

4         available to check in on veterans.                       So like the

5         Veterans Alliance we at SAGE have also been

6         reaching out individually to veterans, a Seige

7         Connect is the new SAGE initiative that links

8         volunteers to LGBT elders for phone support.

9                    We also have made our veteran support

10        group available via telephone.                    We've lost

11        several veterans over the last few months, a lot

12        of them COVID related.               Housing hasn't been that

13        big of an issue, but like I said mental health is

14        really up there.           There are some tele-therapy

15        programs available but it would be nice to see if

16        that could become a little bit more so, a little

17        bit more available.             The VA has struggled, the

18        home based primary care system the program there,

19        has been put on hold.              They're still doing like

20        intakes and evaluations over the telephone, but

21        that was a big part of our program because a lot

22        of our veterans are elder and frail, in frail

23        health and they can't travel to the VA.                           And

24        somebody else also mentioned that the USPS is



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2         causing medications to be delayed, yes, we're

3         seeing that as well.

4                     Getting things notarized, we had to file

5         a case with the New York State Supreme Court for

6         a guardianship case and trying to get a notary

7         done was challenging, but we did it on line.                         And

8         the whole delay in the court systems is

9         appalling, this guardianship case is like a

10        priority.      This veteran has no money and because

11        his current guardian hasn't been able to figure

12        out how to get him his money, so we're waiting

13        for that.      The glory here right now is the

14        restoration of Honor Act, which we cannot thank

15        you enough for your support and hard work getting

16        this passed.        It's just so inclusive, it's for

17        veterans with other than honorable discharge for

18        sexual orientation and gender identity, but it's

19        broader than that as you know, it's for people

20        with PTSD, MST or TBI, all who have other than

21        honorable discharge related to any of those

22        issues.    This is a huge opportunity for us.

23                    We've been hearing from more veterans

24        because of this legislation and we want to



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2         continue that.           I think focus first on finding

3         the veterans who have slipped through the cracks,

4         get them started and finding them services and

5         then figure out where we need to provide more

6         funding support to try to like broaden what needs

7         to be broadened at that time.                      I see I've gone

8         over my time, thank you so much for the

9         opportunity.

10                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you.

11        Laura?

12                     MS. LAURA STRADLEY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR,

13        VETERANS OUTREACH CENTER:                   Well, good afternoon

14        everyone and thank you for inviting me to speak

15        today.     As members of the veterans affairs

16        committees I imagine that you're all very

17        familiar with the term presumptive conditions and

18        I know that we discussed it a little bit earlier

19        this morning.          This is important to talk about

20        though, because there's a correlation between

21        presumptive conditions and those who are at

22        higher risk for serious complications from COVID-

23        19.   Vietnam veterans were exposed to Agent

24        Orange, Desert Storm veterans were required to



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2         take anti-nerve agent bromide pills, which has

3         been linked to a series of conditions called the

4         Gulf War Syndrome.            Post 911 vets were exposed to

5         burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and Marine Corp

6         veterans who served at Camp Lagune had

7         contaminated drinking water from 1957 to 1987.

8                    So all of these exposures have led to

9         cancer, respiratory conditions, heart issues,

10        diabetes and other things that would put somebody

11        who test positive for COVID at very high risk for

12        serious complications.               So veterans are

13        collectively in jeopardy of not being able to

14        recover from the physical effects of COVID-19 and

15        with that being said we're all also I think, too

16        keenly aware of the veteran suicide rate in our

17        country.     We know that veterans are taking their

18        own life, you know, the figures vary, but between

19        20 to 22 veterans a day, which is nearly double

20        the rate of non-veterans in the United States.

21        And when we look at the risk factors for suicide

22        we can see again that the impacts of COVID-19 can

23        and will have a catastrophic impact on many in

24        our veteran population.



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2                      So I'd like to share a little bit about

3         what we've seen at Veterans Outreach Center

4         regarding the mental health impacts of this

5         virus.     We've operated a homeless shelter for

6         male veterans since 2001 and we typically have

7         maybe one physical altercation between the

8         residents per year.               Since March of 2020, we've

9         had 12 altercations and one of which resulted in

10        a veteran needing to go to the hospital.                            In

11        addition, our residents have been unable to see

12        family members for many months, of course, we've

13        talked about that as well.                    In an effort to avoid

14        the spread of the virus throughout our shelter we

15        had to make that decision, too.                       But the

16        reunification of families and the healing of

17        relationships is a really key element for those

18        in recover and so, therefore, forward progress

19        has been quite slow for many of our homeless

20        veterans.

21                     Relapses were kept at bay during the

22        strictly followed initial quarantine period from

23        March through June, but they rose almost

24        immediately when the quarantine began to lift.



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2         Substantial back payments of unemployment and

3         stimulus checks resulted in a handful of our

4         residents going from having no financial

5         resources to having tens of thousands of dollars,

6         which is generally not healthy for people in

7         recovery.

8                     Finally, in all of our years in

9         operation we've had only a couple of attempted

10        suicides thankfully, but one of them was this

11        year in April, and thankfully, the veterans

12        attempt was unsuccessful and he continues to

13        recover now with inpatient psychiatric care.                         But

14        as for our employment and training programs, I

15        can tell you that pre-pandemic we anticipated

16        serving approximately 60 veterans who were in

17        need of work between April and June, instead we

18        only served 33 and that was done virtually.                         Our

19        numbers are picking up for July and August, but

20        finding both available jobs and permanent housing

21        for many of these vets is even more challenging.

22        Rent prices remain high, many people are not

23        moving and landlords are on hold with evictions.

24        Then, of course, many companies are reluctant or



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2         unable to start hiring again at this point in the

3         pandemic.

4                     So I'd like to just add also the

5         additional $600 per week of unemployment support

6         really seemed to have a discouraging effect on

7         workers from wanting to return to work.

8         Moreover, the lack of childcare remains an issue

9         and again, many veteran job seekers lack

10        computers and internet access, which I know we've

11        also discussed, to complete those online

12        applications and do virtual interviews.

13                    Now I wanted to share a little bit about

14        what VOC has done to mitigate some of those

15        issues.    We began offering and facilitating

16        virtual networking sessions for employers and

17        veterans.      We've assisted clients without the

18        proper technology to complete virtual interviews

19        at VOC now that we're reopened and have

20        implemented a number of safety precautions.

21        We've also purchased cameras to give veterans who

22        have their own computers at home.                       We've linked

23        directly with the State Division of Veteran

24        Services to help veterans with unemployment



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2         issues.    Many vets ended up making dozens if not

3         hundreds of phone calls to the DOL themselves and

4         we're not able to get resolution, but through our

5         partnership with the Division of Veteran Services

6         we were able get those issues resolved

7         immediately.

8                    We conducted 3200 buddy checks, which

9         entailed phone calls, texts and e-mails to check

10        on the welfare of our clients from March through

11        August.    By way of comparison, all of 2019 we had

12        only a total of 2800 buddy checks.                       Our staff

13        created over 600 handmade cards and mailed them

14        to clients in March and April.                    We created

15        virtual peer support groups, some specifically

16        for men, some for women, even a book club.

17        Between March and August of 2019 we served 168

18        veterans with food baskets, hygiene items and

19        other essentials, but in the same time period of

20        2020 we served 317 vets, many of these service

21        episodes involved VOC staff delivering the food

22        directly to veteran's homes.                   We applied for a

23        grant and received funding to purchase 50 tablets

24        with two years of internet connection to provide



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2         to our most vulnerable clients, this way they'll

3         be able to connect with their VOC case manager,

4         conduct telehealth appointments, attend substance

5         abuse groups online and connect with family and

6         friends.

7                    We purchased two sound proof booths

8         under the same grant for our homeless shelters.

9         These booths are outfitted with a tablet for the

10        same functionality that I just described so that

11        vets can do those things with privacy, which

12        would otherwise be impossible in a community

13        living setting.          And lastly, we created a number

14        of videos for our website and social media apps

15        that include tips for healthy eating on a budget,

16        fitness routines that can be done at home,

17        meditation ideas and more.                  So I'd like to share

18        with you if time allows in the question, how we

19        view the way ahead at VOC, but again I thank you

20        for your time and thank you for allowing me to

21        share today.

22                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you, thank

23        you all.     Let me first apologize to my co-chairs

24        and rankers, I neglected to give you an



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2         opportunity to say any opening remarks before we

3         began this panel discussion.                   So if there's

4         things you want to say additionally to the

5         questions, please free to do that and we'll begin

6         with co-chair, pardon me, Barrett.

7                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

8         senator.     No, I, I want to thank these panelists.

9         It's an outstanding group, all of whom I have the

10        privilege of working with before this and I'm

11        really am moved and touched by the particularly

12        from Ashton and James and Laura the very hands on

13        grassroots work that you've done and, you know,

14        then listening to Mike in sort of contrast, I

15        found myself thinking do we operate micro or do

16        we operate macro, do we look for, you know,

17        really local hands on solutions and fund at the

18        grassroots level or do we need to do, you know,

19        what sort of Mike suggested and systems

20        addressing things where we break down silos and

21        work across the for profit, not-for-profit and

22        government sectors and I just wondered, you know,

23        if any of you have some thoughts on that

24        listening to each other at this point?



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2                    MR. STEWART:            Thank you, Assembly Member

3         Barrett.     I would like to take a crack at that.

4         I think community is the best place to start,

5         grassroots in a sense.               Communities are coming

6         together, we're hearing about parents starting to

7         form pods or bubbles or whatever you want to call

8         it to try to address the shortcomings of safety

9         with the schools reopening, being with people in

10        the streets protesting civil rights.                         There's a

11        lot of talk on the street about people coming

12        together and I think that that would be a really

13        good place to focus on, but as far as the macro

14        part the WiFi and providing some broadband in

15        some of the smaller communities is a wonderful

16        idea, too and I think that to me is more macro as

17        well, but then again it comes to the communities

18        right, it's still on a smaller scale.

19                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Great, thank

20        you.

21                   MS. STRADLEY:             I'd also like to add --

22        oh, I'm sorry.

23                   MR. FITZGERALD:              Like I'd like to

24        continue with that note, but also emphasize that



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2         I feel that both approaches are worthwhile to

3         take on.     Community organizations will never not

4         be needed, so it's for us to, you know, continue

5         to have our finger on the pulse of the community

6         so we can better advise some of the government

7         agencies in, you know, forming these larger

8         systems, to approach the issues that are

9         currently facing the veteran community now.                         So

10        it's a continual partnership and no different

11        than we're having to close the gap between our

12        military and civilian divide.

13                    We also need to do that same approach

14        when it comes to closing the divide between our

15        community organizations and our government

16        partners.

17                    MS. STRADLEY:            And I'd like to add to

18        that actually, that's a perfect lead in for what

19        I was going to say anyway about the divide

20        between the government agencies and the community

21        organizations.         One of the things that VOC is

22        doing is we're partnering with our local veteran

23        service agencies and the county surrounding

24        Monroe County, the more rural counties in the



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2         Finger Lakes.        And we are going to be delivering

3         some case management services and other

4         programming on site in their agencies on a

5         rotating basis with the staff that we have at VOC

6         because our staff are trained and they understand

7         all the ins and outs of case management and

8         mental health and all those kinds of issues, and

9         I think our veteran service agencies are

10        phenomenal at filing benefits claims and many,

11        many other things, but they're kind of being

12        inundated these days with the challenges of

13        trying to become case managers at the same time.

14                    And so we're partnering up with them and

15        we're really excited about the ability to, you

16        know, take all of the work we do virtually into

17        some of those surrounding counties.

18                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    Thank you,

19        Mike, oh okay, sorry.

20                    MR. FITZGERALD:             No, I apologize Chair,

21        I wanted to, you know, I had one small piece,

22        which is emphasizing the partnership that we've

23        currently been having with our government

24        partners.      So New York State Division of Veterans



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2         Services has been amazing at, you know,

3         connecting with us so we can provide referrals

4         for veterans to receive consideration for their

5         VA service connected conditions and have a

6         sustained kind of support through those

7         mechanisms.       So if we can continue to strengthen

8         those partnerships through not only our state

9         agencies, but our city agencies then I feel that

10        that's the best, the best path moving forward to

11        long term sustainable solutions to connect our

12        veterans with those types of services.

13                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

14        James and Mike.

15                   MR. HAYNIE:           And I agree with all my

16        panelists, co-panelists.                I do believe at the

17        community is where we're going to fight the

18        battle and win the war if you will.                        That said I

19        do want to make a point though, what I was

20        describing that macro sort of systems level

21        change that that I believe after 15 years of

22        doing this work that needs to happen, it isn't

23        just about the veterans serving community and

24        government.       It is about engaging broadly, for



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2         example, the state's employer community, it is

3         not engaging broadly the [unintelligible]

4         [03:00:27] using in the state.                    I would be

5         willing to bet that that all of my community

6         service partners, co-panelist here would

7         highlight that they operate at a resource

8         constraint environment.               The extent to which we

9         can create diverse ways to bring resources to

10        community organizations such that it's not just

11        government, but it's all the citizens and

12        institutions that benefit from military service

13        in an era of an all volunteer force.                         It

14        shouldn't just be about government.                        It should be

15        about all of us collectively [unintelligible]

16        [03:01:05] the opportunity, the challenges that

17        are representing in this community that we're all

18        committed to serve.

19                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     My times up,

20        but thank you all very much for your thoughtful

21        comments and for the work that you're doing.                         You

22        know, we really, we couldn't be doing this

23        without all of us doing our part, so thank you.

24        Pam, do you want to take over?



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2                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Yes, thank you.

3         I have two questions, I guess, one for Mike and

4         one for Laura and I'm just going to ask the

5         questions and then you guys can answer when I'm

6         done.    First Mike, in your statement you had made

7         mention relative to the work that you have

8         partnered with, Military Times, and I was

9         wondering relative to how the information rolls

10        out, it was a survey I guess, that folks had done

11        and I find it interesting because the buddy check

12        program that we instituted at my American Legion

13        was based on something I read on Military Times

14        and kind of sent it forward.                    And since IVMF does

15        a great job with best practices and gathering

16        information, how can we get a lot of that

17        information that you all are compiling down to

18        the grassroots level, to a lot of the not-for-

19        profit or maybe the state or government agencies

20        that could use that valuable information that you

21        all are gathering to be able to send out?

22                    And then, Laura, you had talked about

23        the situation with the unemployment and the folks

24        getting the, I guess the additional $600 and your



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2         homeless veterans, I was wondering if they had to

3         pay anything for where they live and also it's

4         interesting because you made mention about having

5         all this extra money and that's not necessarily,

6         you know, a good situation especially for people

7         in recovery.        And I just wanted to kind of like

8         get a feel for, how does that work?                        Because if

9         they're not able to now find employment and you

10        have all this money it's like how are you working

11        through that process knowing that that $600 is no

12        longer there, maybe the money that they're

13        getting from employment is limited, they're not

14        able to find jobs.            It seems to me, you know,

15        being able to have some sort of structured

16        financial management, it's concerning to me

17        because then the last panel we had huge, you

18        know, housing/tenant, you know, problems with

19        evictions.      So I'm just trying to get a little

20        better feel for how is that working through.                         So

21        I don't know if Mike, you wanted to go first.

22                   MR. HAYNIE:           Thank you, Chair Hunter,

23        it's good to see you and I'll answer quickly so I

24        can leave a bit amount of time for Laura.                         We're



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2         publishing all of the snap shot polls on that

3         data what Military Times.                 We do the analysis,

4         Military Times publishes some of it, what they

5         don't publish we push out in these snap shot

6         briefings.      I will provide all of that data and

7         all of those briefings to your office and you can

8         certainly share with the rest of the committee.

9                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Thank you.

10                   MS. STRADLEY:             Thanks Mike, I appreciate

11        that, too.      So our homeless veterans do not pay

12        for housing.        They, we have partnerships with the

13        VA and we receive reimbursement on a nightly

14        basis for veterans who are eligible under a

15        couple of different funding streams through the

16        VA or through our local county DSS.                        So our vets

17        don't pay for their housing while they're in our

18        homeless shelters.            For veterans who are, you

19        know, obviously living in their own permanent

20        housing, of course, they would have to be

21        responsible for their rent payments.                         But, you

22        know, with regard to the, having that kind of big

23        lump sum of money, I think that what happens, you

24        know, again is if you do have a veteran who's



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2         living in, you know, our shelter for example and

3         really all their needs are being taken care of

4         during that time, but they're trying to get back

5         into employment, they're trying to get their life

6         back on track and then they get this big, you

7         know, back paycheck, it can really be damaging.

8         I mean, you know, somebody who doesn't have good

9         money management skills you can imagine many,

10        many ways that that's going to go, you know,

11        wrong.     And so I know one of the things that the

12        VA does when veterans are applying for service

13        connected disability compensation, if it takes

14        the VA, you know, six or eight months to make a

15        decision that veteran is going to get a retro

16        check with all the back pay in there.                           But if

17        there's a question about the veteran's mental

18        health than typically they will require a

19        fiduciary to help oversee that big lump sum check

20        when it comes in.

21                     The veteran won't get held up on getting

22        their monthly check when the VA makes a decision,

23        but they won't get that big retro paycheck until

24        they've got a fiduciary to oversee that.                            So I



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2         don't know if that's an option, you know, moving

3         forward for folks that, but I don't even know how

4         you would even, you know, really regulate

5         something like that because, just because a

6         person has lost their job and they're collecting

7         unemployment, there's not necessarily any

8         indicator that they also have mental health

9         issues.     You know, so I'm not sure how you would

10        legislate something like that if you even could.

11        But it's just, I guess it's just something to

12        consider, maybe there's some thought behind the

13        size of a retro payment that gets, you know, sent

14        to somebody just in general.                    You know, how

15        that's organized I don't know.

16                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Thank you.

17                    MS. STRADLEY:             You're welcome.

18                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, Senator Ritchie.

19                    SENATOR RITCHIE:               Just a question for

20        Mike and I'm not sure this is exactly what you

21        said.    So first for clarification, did you say

22        that for women veterans that there was an

23        increase in the request for help for mental

24        health services?



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2                    MR. HAYNIE:           I did, at a significantly

3         higher rate than from male veterans during the,

4         this COVID health emergency.

5                    SENATOR RITCHIE:               So my question would

6         be I've heard from so many women who are just

7         dealing with childcare issues and trying to make

8         their way through online learning with regards to

9         their children's education, is that part of what

10        has driven the increase or, or do you know what

11        the reason is?

12                   MR. HAYNIE:           Yeah, you're intuition is

13        exactly right, you know, so when we look at other

14        data, complementary data that we collected during

15        this period when, when a very significant

16        difference between men and women with regard to

17        how they prioritize the needs that they're

18        identifying also is at the top of the list and I

19        think we found it and compliment it, if you will,

20        the mental health issue is childcare and

21        generally therapeutic if you will.                       Because in

22        many of these families that responsibility is

23        falling to women and I think there's a, there is

24        a correlation between the increase expressing for



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2         mental healthcare and increased burden at this

3         time as related to childcare in particular and

4         given that so many childcare supports nationally

5         and around the state have shut down as a

6         consequence of COVID.                A lot of this has been has

7         pushed into the huddle, if you will, so I think

8         there is a strong [unintelligible] [03:08:36].

9                      SENATOR RITCHIE:               Thank you and I just

10        want to say thank you to all the witnesses,

11        appreciate the information.                    Thank you, Chair.

12                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you.           Assembly

13        Member Ashby.          Oh, there we go, okay, good,

14        sorry.

15                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Thank you,

16        senator.       Just a couple quick questions, the

17        first for Laura; when you were talking about the

18        job interviews that you've had kind of success

19        with setting up, you know, recently, can you get

20        into a little bit more detail in what that

21        entailed?

22                     MS. STRADLEY:             Sure, so we have operated

23        a program called Vet Net for years and typically

24        what that is, is we bring in employers once a



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2         week on site to VOC and then job seekers who are,

3         you know, would be a good fit for those employers

4         for any open position those employers would have

5         and that's a requirement of, of what employers we

6         have come in.        You know, we would have basically

7         a networking session and then from there, you

8         know, often times a veteran is encouraged to then

9         apply for the job that, you know, they've

10        discussed.      We had to obviously put that on hold

11        during the initial shutdown in March and so we

12        tried to get that back up and running as quickly

13        as possible doing a virtual version of that.                         So,

14        you know, much like we are all here today on

15        Zoom, and that was successful.                    And then, you

16        know, similar to that we purchased a number of

17        cameras for veterans who had, you know, some type

18        of computer equipment at home, but just didn't

19        have the ability to do a virtual connection with

20        an employer.        So that now they can do those job

21        interviews online as needed and then for veterans

22        who didn't have, you know, enough of the

23        equipment at home, but or maybe not internet

24        access either, we have them coming into our



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2         computer lab and they can do those interviews,

3         you know, at VOC on the premises there.

4                    And as I mentioned towards the end we

5         did purchase about 50 tablets so that again

6         veterans who didn't have internet access or

7         connectivity now have that and they can use those

8         as well and we've really set those aside for the

9         veterans we feel are most vulnerable in terms of

10        the social isolation and the, you know, mental

11        health issues.         I don't know if that answered

12        your question.

13                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Was there, is

14        there a specific industry or trend that you're

15        seeing over the last couple months that veterans

16        have had more success entering?

17                   MS. STRADLEY:             Boy, that's a tough

18        question, I bet if I asked my employment and

19        training manger, she could probably get you some

20        information so I can follow up with you on that.

21        I think that, you know, we, our largest

22        employment and training grant funded program is

23        for homeless veterans.               So we, of course, see a

24        lot of barriers to employment typically with that



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2         population where, you know, they may not have

3         driver's license, transportation.                        There may be

4         felony convictions on their record and other

5         issues, you know, lack of college degrees and

6         things that would sometimes be a barrier.                          So I'm

7         not sure how that, you know, has really morphed

8         into which industries are, we're finding better

9         success with at this point than others, but I

10        can, I can certainly get back to you on that.

11                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   I'd appreciate

12        that.    And then this question for the panel as a

13        whole and I understand that, you know, some, many

14        of the individuals that you're working with, you

15        know, these veterans may not have family

16        connections at this point and, or great social

17        support and maybe a big part of the reason of why

18        they're finding themselves in the position that

19        they're in and why you're working with them.                          But

20        the ones that do have family and a support

21        system, so a significant other or friends, in

22        your experience have you gotten feedback from

23        them regarding the use of virtual support and its

24        effectiveness?



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2                     MR. FITZGERALD:             So like we've gotten

3         quite a bit of feedback from our client load

4         about, you know, them being able to successfully

5         access broadband internet and also have the

6         technology tools available to perform telehealth

7         and stay communicated, but the issue that remains

8         kind of prevalent is having to spread that around

9         to, you know, additional family members because

10        those resources are in such short supply.                         So

11        like being able to identify those minority

12        communities more efficiently so we can give them

13        the support needed.             So not only can they connect

14        with our medical professionals and the resources

15        in the city government that are needed, but also

16        so they can stay connected to their families and

17        not be overextended technology wise.

18                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                  Thank you, Staff

19        Sergeant.

20                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, thank you.           If

21        any of the other members have, would like to ask

22        a question if they could turn their video screen

23        on that would be helpful.                 Okay, Senator

24        Harckham.



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2                    SENATOR HARCKHAM:                Thank you, Mr. Chair,

3         Madam Chair.        Thank you panelists, this is, this

4         is very informative.             A lot of what I was going

5         to ask about has been discussed, but I just want

6         to go into it in a little more depth about

7         telehealth.       Earlier, with the first panel we

8         were talking in depth about suicide prevention,

9         overdose, substance use disorder and I know from

10        my work on, on my committee, which oversees OASIS

11        and we work with OMH, the state agencies and

12        their partners have been able to transition

13        somewhat successfully to a telehealth model

14        depending on how we can get technology as you've

15        been saying into the hands of the people who need

16        it.   Can any of you speak to whether the VA has

17        been able to make the same kinds of adjustments

18        that you've been making and state agencies have

19        been making?        Has the VA changed its provider

20        model to telehealth and has it been successful

21        for your clients?

22                   MS. STRADLEY:             I'm going to speak to

23        that one if you don't mind, because I can give

24        you some personal experience on that.                         So the VA



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2         has had telehealth for many years actually and

3         they have had a great deal of success with it,

4         but I will just mention it, you know, on a

5         personal note, I'm a veteran myself and I

6         contacted the VA in April and May regarding what

7         I felt like was possibly either some, you know,

8         asthma or maybe even anxiety stress because my

9         heart was pounding a lot.                 And so I didn't have

10        an opportunity to see an in person provider and

11        the result was yes, you know, this is probably

12        asthma, we'll send you a nebulizer, and then in

13        July I collapsed on my back deck, actually,

14        because I have a heart condition I wasn't aware

15        that I had, the result is I broke three bones in

16        my face, you can still them healing a little bit,

17        they're on my cheek bone.                 And when I contacted

18        the VA after I got out of the hospital I was told

19        that, you know, my provider wasn't seeing people

20        in person until the middle of August.                         And I said

21        well that's not acceptable, I need somebody to

22        listen to my heart and somebody to listen to my

23        vitals because I have a more serious condition

24        and I ended up having to, unfortunately, go, you



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2         know, up the chain of command and ultimately the

3         medical center director and I spoke directly and

4         he was incredibly supportive and they got me in.

5                    But the unfortunate thing I think is and

6         I've heard this from many of my clients as well

7         and our veterans they have shifted so fully to

8         the telehealth model as much as they possibly can

9         in an effort to protect veterans who maybe at

10        high risk for COVID, that they're I think,

11        starting to kind of miss the boat on some things

12        that they really can't do by telehealth very

13        successfully.        And so, you know, I am concerned

14        about that and we are having some conversations

15        with the VA about that, and I know they're

16        starting to bring some of their providers back a

17        little more frequently but it's still very hard

18        to get one of those in person appointments and I

19        think that the front line staff at the VA are

20        really putting up a stop sign on those, on those

21        in person appointments whenever possible.                         So

22        that's my view on that situation.

23                   SENATOR HARCKMAN:                Wow, well best, best

24        luck in your, your recovery and thank you for



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2         that.

3                     MS. STRADLEY:             Oh, thank you, appreciate

4         it.

5                     MR. FITZGERALD:              Senator, just very

6         quickly I'd like to, you know, add a small piece

7         onto that.       The vast majority of veteran

8         population is over the age of 55.                        So with this

9         humungous transition of the VA to telehealth, I

10        think we did miss the mark in providing adequate

11        training to those older veterans that may not be

12        as familiar with this technology, and has put

13        them in a detrimental position to where they have

14        lost that consistent connection to their medical

15        team and their, you know, care professionals that

16        are invested in their wellbeing, but not having

17        them adequately knowledgeable how to make those

18        connections or how to, you know, follow up and go

19        up that chain of command has been one of the

20        missteps that I feel that the large organization

21        of the VA's missed, but it is for community

22        organizations such as NYC Veterans Alliance who

23        continues to bring up those issues and support

24        our veterans until the larger system can



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2         accommodate them.

3                    SENATOR HARCKMAN:                Thank you.

4                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Assembly Member

5         Mantkelow.

6                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER MANTKELOW:                      Thank you,

7         Senator.     Laura, good to see you today.

8                    MS. STRADLEY:             You, too.

9                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER MANTKELOW:                      I pray for

10        your recovery and your healing.

11                   MS. STRADLEY:             Thank you.

12                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER MANTKELOW:                      I only have

13        three minutes so I'll make this quick and I'll

14        get my questions out to you.                   You talked about 12

15        altercations when you first came on compared to,

16        I think, one or two previously, that's my first

17        question, you know, what's driving that?                          Is it

18        because they were locked up, you know, being held

19        inside is that part of the reason why?

20                   MS. STRADLEY:             I think so, you know, we

21        serve 28 males vets in our shelter at any given

22        time and you know, when you take away the ability

23        for them to get those, those supports that they

24        have outside the shelter because family members



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2         now cannot come in, they're, you know, not able

3         to go see family members.                 For many of them there

4         was job loss involved as well and for others I

5         think we just, you know, we had to put a lot of

6         new rules in place.             You have to wear masks, you

7         know, we can't have everybody eating in the

8         dining room at the same time and all these things

9         together when you've got a challenged population,

10        it's just an awful lot for them to absorb.                          And,

11        of course, you know, it took a little while I

12        think for a lot of different systems to get

13        everything up and running and so, you know, some

14        of the online substance abuse recovery groups

15        weren't immediate and so you had some other

16        measures of support that, you know, kind of got

17        taken away.       So tension was just very high and

18        tough, you know.

19                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER MANTKELOW:                      So my

20        question is, you know, I am absolutely concerned

21        about the mental health of our veterans that we

22        as a state are not doing enough for our veterans

23        and I know going into the winter months here in

24        upstate New York, it can somewhat be depressing



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2         as well, with just the cloudiness and the way the

3         weather is and we're also talking about a

4         possible second wave.              What can we do from the

5         stateside at this point to catch you geared up to

6         help you in everything that you do at your

7         center?    I mean, your center is remarkable, I've

8         been there on many occasions and the work you do

9         there is just awesome.

10                   MS. STRADLEY:             Oh, thank you so much, I

11        appreciate that.           You know, I know one concern

12        that is always in the back of my mind is hoping

13        that we'll be able to receive that support that

14        was approved in the state's budget this year.

15        You know, at this point we, of course, have not

16        received it and so in order for us to be able to

17        continue doing the work with the staff that we

18        have, you know, we count on that operationally.

19        So obviously, that's one thing and I know

20        everybody is saying, you know, finances are tight

21        and we all need support, but so that would be

22        something and I guess, you know, just as we

23        continue to move forward, I mean, we've

24        identified a number of things that have helped



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2         this situation we have converted some spaces

3         outside of the shelter, but on that same campus

4         into zones where families can come in and we can,

5         you know, have immediate family, you know, only

6         or whatever.        They meet with the veteran, they

7         spend maybe an hour and then we have cleaning

8         processes and things like that.                     So, you know, I

9         think we're identifying some of those ourselves

10        at this point, but, your continued support, yeah,

11        thank you.

12                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER MANKTELOW:                      Alright,

13        thank you, thank you all for your service and

14        dedication to our veterans and may God bless and

15        please stay safe.

16                   MS. STRADLEY:             Thank you, you too.

17                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you all for

18        your participation.             I know we've all

19        collectively recognize there are many challenges

20        ahead for us in dealing with the veterans.                         We

21        appreciate your time.              To the hearing, to the

22        hearing group we're a little more than half way

23        through.     We're going to take a 15 minute break

24        to give you an opportunity to take care of



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2         whatever you need to take care of and we'll,

3         we'll re-adjourn in 15 minutes, thank you.                           We

4         all good?

5                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    Yes and thank

6         you, thank you senator and thank you all.

7                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, good afternoon

8         everybody.      We're going to open with originally

9         first panel discussion.               Benjamin, we welcome you

10        here and I want to give each of our members an

11        opportunity say a few words.                   I'll start with co-

12        Chair from and ranker from the, I'm sorry.                           Chair

13        from the assembly, co-Chair Barrett, if you want

14        to have some remarks?

15                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    I just want to

16        welcome Benjamin and thank you for accommodating

17        us, I know you had a busy day today with training

18        and it's just really important that we have an

19        opportunity to hear from the Division.                            I hope

20        you had a chance to hear from maybe some staff

21        that on listening some of the issues that were

22        raised, but you know, there, there, we have had

23        some great panelists already and look forward to

24        hearing your testimony.



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2                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Assemblywoman Hunter.

3                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                   Yes, thank you,

4         senator.     I'd just like to, you know, offer to

5         Benjamin as you're the, I guess, sole

6         representative here today from the Division.                         The

7         panels that we've had today actually have been

8         very exemplary, you know, not having had some of

9         the other folks that maybe would have been able

10        to answer a little bit more specific questions

11        that we would have related to, you know, health

12        or COVID.      And obviously, now the Division is

13        here that really if you have an opportunity to

14        speak with your staff or speak with Division

15        staff who were able to be on the call to listen

16        to the hearing.          There's definitely been pleas

17        for assistance and help and hopefully, that

18        translates back to the Division to really hear

19        what's happening to Veterans during COVID and,

20        you know, I feel like sometimes they're a really

21        bit under represented and unheard especially

22        during COVID.        And so we have really have had an

23        opportunity to get very specific information

24        relative to how COVID is effecting veterans so I



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2         look forward to hearing your testimony and maybe

3         some of the questions that we were not able to

4         get answered you may have answers to or

5         definitely be able to relay that back up the

6         chain.     So thank you.

7                      SENATOR BROOKS:              Senator Ritchie.

8                      SENATOR RITCHIE:               Just that I appreciate

9         you being here.            There are a number of questions

10        that I had for the Division of Military Naval

11        Affairs and some that you may not be able to

12        answer, but during the portion where we do ask

13        questions I probably will proceed just so you can

14        take them back and pass the on because they are,

15        they are important questions that it would be

16        very helpful to get some response to.                           Thank you.

17                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Assembly Member Ashby.

18                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Thank you for

19        being here today.             I know that it's been an

20        uphill battle for the division to connect with so

21        many municipalities and counties out there to

22        serve our veterans and I look forward to hearing

23        your testimony.

24                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you.           Ben,



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2         welcome, we appreciate you being here and we'll

3         run the operation, we'll give you five minutes

4         for presentation and then we'll open it to

5         questions from members.               You know, we've had a

6         lot of good discussions so far, of course,

7         everybody's looking for money and that's going to

8         be one of the big challenges, but collectively,

9         we all recognize how critical the veteran

10        community is to all of us and the support that we

11        have an obligation to provide it.                       So we'll let

12        you begin your presentation.

13                    MR. BENJAMIN POMERANCE, DEPUTY DIRECTOR

14        FOR PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT & LEARNING, NYS DIVISION

15        OF VETERANS' SERVICES:               Thank you and good

16        afternoon.      Thank you for having me here today

17        and thank you for accommodating the scheduling so

18        we can finish up this morning's training.                         To

19        those who spoke before me who have served in our

20        military, thank you for your service to our state

21        and our country and to all of the great advocates

22        from whom you've already heard, thank you for

23        your continued service to veterans and their

24        families.      A lot of familiar names on that list



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2         and so I'm sure the panelists have been

3         fantastic.      The past 75 years the mission of our

4         State Division of Veterans' Services has been and

5         remains to assist all veterans, members of the

6         military and their families, with access from the

7         local, state and federal benefits that they have

8         earned by virtue of their military service.                         I'm

9         proud to share with you that in the face of an

10        unprecedented health and economic crisis and the

11        ensuing logistical challenges, our staff still

12        works tirelessly on behalf of New York 680,000

13        veterans and their families.

14                   In fact, our division still brings in

15        more than $63 million per month in recurring

16        federal benefits, which comes to more than three

17        quarters of billion dollars annually towards New

18        York's veterans and their families, and we have

19        ensured that the veterans of our state still get

20        these benefits throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

21        This money is important more so than ever in

22        these current circumstances.                   It is a lifeline as

23        you've already heard today to veterans and

24        families facing an uncertain economy as well as



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2         their communities, businesses, schools and the

3         state economy as a whole.

4                    Since the COVID pandemic began our staff

5         kept on service New York's veterans community

6         through virtual benefits advising sessions and

7         where safe and appropriate in office visits.

8         Even during these times of uncertainty we stay

9         steadfast in our mission to ensure that all New

10        York's veterans, military members and their

11        families are accessing the benefits that they

12        have earned.        All division employees have kept on

13        working remotely and performing their normal job

14        duties during the COVID-19 crisis, which means

15        that services have kept on without interruption.

16        For veterans who are not linked with VA

17        healthcare we keep assisting them in accessing

18        healthcare through our digital benefits

19        advisement.       We can do this because early in 2020

20        the division established New York State's first

21        ever digital pathway to submit claims and appeals

22        for veterans services to the Federal Department

23        of Veterans Affairs.             This permits us to serve

24        clients remotely and to ensure that claims are



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2         submitted in a timely manner despite the VA

3         regional offices is closed to the public, and it

4         allow DVS to complete claim now for benefits

5         without printing a single sheet of paper, which

6         of course, reduces our environmental footprint as

7         well.    So we keep on finding creative solutions

8         to meet the needs of veterans and their families

9         during these times.

10                    We also keep on investing in our

11        partners abilities and county government and city

12        governments to keep on serving veterans during

13        these difficult times.                During the COVID-19

14        pandemic, the division has led trainings not only

15        for our own staff, but also for county and city

16        veteran service officers across New York State.

17        These trainings have increased the knowledge base

18        and the resources and connections of the veteran

19        service officers who assist veterans and their

20        families.       In fact, I just finished administering

21        our semi-annual training with 162 attendees right

22        before this testimony.                These have included semi-

23        annual trainings with 141 who have taken part in

24        the first, the 162 for this one and then three



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2         weeks ago a week long accreditation training for

3         county partners with 12 counties taking part, all

4         of them receiving accreditation under the state's

5         POA, with more to come.

6                    Beyond ensuring that veterans receive

7         the benefits that they are owed in the wake of

8         the pandemic, division helped out veterans and

9         their families who are facing food insecurity

10        during these challenging times.                     We engaged in a

11        collaboration arrangement with the Hello Fresh

12        Corporation, USDA's Farmers to Families Food Box

13        program, the Campaign Against Hunger in Brooklyn,

14        Black Veterans for Social Justice in New York

15        City and Western New York Heroes near Buffalo to

16        utilize resources from Governor Cuomo's COVID-19

17        philanthropic fund to deliver nourishing food to

18        veterans and their families.                   This endeavor has

19        delivered more than 50,000 healthy meals to

20        veterans and their families across New York and

21        is designed to continue until at least the end of

22        September.

23                   We also see that during these difficult

24        times personal outreach is more necessary than



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2         ever.    While we could not meet in person, the

3         division contacted more than 30,000 veterans

4         online since the COVID-19 period began to conduct

5         buddy checks during the pandemic.                        We used these

6         check-ins to provide needed comfort to those who

7         were socially isolated as well as using it as a

8         chance to assist them in accessing their

9         previously untapped benefits.                     We also led an

10        online gathering for gold star families on

11        Memorial Day providing these families who have

12        lost ones in military service to this country a

13        much needed gathering place where they could be

14        in community with one another.

15                    As a result, some of these gold star

16        families were linked with benefits and services

17        about which they previously were unaware or had

18        applied for before and been denied.                         In a time

19        that makes it difficult to feel like a community,

20        the division has bridged the gap for those who

21        sacrificed and lost so much on behalf of our

22        state and nation.            These are just some of the

23        initiative and corrective steps we have taken to

24        support veterans and their families in these



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2         difficult times.           The staff of Division of

3         Veterans Services remains proud of the work that

4         we do each and every day.                 In support of the

5         governor, the legislature and our many community

6         partners, we will keep on working tirelessly to

7         fulfill the promise we made to those who've

8         served by taking care of them upon their return

9         to New York State.            And I'm happy to pause for

10        any questions you might have.

11                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you very much.

12        I'd like to give co-chair, pardon me, excuse me,

13        Barrett an opportunity to ask the first question.

14                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

15        senator and thank you Benjamin for your testimony

16        and for all of the wonderful things that the,

17        that the division has been doing under

18        challenging circumstances.                  You have this sort of

19        dubious role of being the only person here

20        representing, you know, the state offices and

21        the, you know, the governor's office and so I

22        know, and you also, we heard from, you know, many

23        other people and organizations before.                            So even

24        though the wonderful numbers that you gave are



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2         impressive, we know that there are huge parts of

3         our veteran communities in the state that were

4         going hungry, that don't have housing, that are

5         struggling with mental health despite all of the

6         efforts of the division.

7                    I just want to ask a couple pointed

8         questions because I know that that and I know

9         that you're not the, it's, the division is not

10        responsible for the nursing homes, the veterans

11        nursing homes and I'm sure you'll hear from

12        others about this, but the one takeaway that I,

13        you know, every time I hear this and maybe you

14        can use some influence on this, is why do we not

15        let people in our veterans nursing homes get

16        their hair done and get their hair cut?                           This,

17        this sense of dignity that comes from that and

18        they've got people right there on their on the

19        staff, if there's any way that you can have that

20        conversation, you know, with the Department of

21        Health or with the, the forces that be I think

22        that that would go a long way to, you know, maybe

23        making people feel good about, about themselves

24        in a very challenging time.                  So I ask you that



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2         and then the other piece that I would say is we

3         have heard a lot about the need and I know it

4         personally in my district for adequate broadband

5         when so many of the things as you said you're

6         doing, you know, remotely and you know, we have

7         other challenges where, you know, where people

8         are not necessarily tech savvy, but we don't have

9         adequate broadband in our state so I, I ask you

10        to join forces with others.                    And I said this to

11        the state education department as well, in this

12        state we've got to get this done, this is like

13        electrification arose in New York State, but to

14        make our veterans, you know, depend on inadequate

15        service and, and not be able, you know, to access

16        remote programs or telehealth or things like that

17        is, you know, is really rubbing salt into the

18        wound.     So I'll stop there and let you respond.

19                     MR. POMERANCE:              Sure, I'll take those

20        two questions in the order they presented, if

21        that's okay.          With the state's veterans homes

22        exactly as you said the best answers and the

23        referral of that question would go to our partner

24        agencies, would it be the State Department of



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2         Health and then the State University of New York

3         who oversees the state veterans homes.                            We are,

4         of course, committed to working with our partners

5         at those homes to ensure the veterans within them

6         and the veterans' spouses within them are able to

7         access all of their veteran's benefits, we

8         frequently interact with the residents of the

9         state's veterans home to ensure that the benefit

10        side of the house is being served and with regard

11        to your question, we can absolutely pass it up

12        the ladder to our partners in state governments

13        over at DOH and SUNY for the homes that they

14        oversee.

15                   With regard to broadband and really more

16        broadly veterans in highly rural areas of the

17        state, one piece of good news that I can offer

18        with regard to broadband, is the last numbers

19        that we have seen from the FCC, The Federal

20        Communications Commission, you say that in New

21        York State there are 96% of veterans living in

22        the state to have broadband access, which

23        certainly seems to be a good news piece; however,

24        there's still that 4%, right and you want to make



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2         certain that no one is without access to benefits

3         and services.          One of the things that our

4         division has done, certainly as long as I've been

5         there, which is since 2013, I think for a long

6         time before that is we have put structures in

7         place to find alternative ways to get to veterans

8         and their families.               We have offices in rural

9         areas, when save and when able we can do home

10        visits, there's a process for that, which of

11        course, now there's certain measures due to

12        COVID-19 that might be required, but certainly it

13        could be on the table as an option.

14                     We can go through the traditional postal

15        system if need be, you know, we'll take the extra

16        steps and go the extra mile to make certain that

17        veterans are able to get access to the benefits

18        they've earned.            Broadband or no broadband, but

19        the numbers from the FCC certainly are

20        encouraging with regard to broadband access

21        specifically for the veterans population of the

22        state.

23                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     I hate to sort

24        of pop your bubble there, but unfortunately, that



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2         FCC information is really misrepresentative of

3         the actual coverage because if there's even one

4         home in a census block that is served the FCC has

5         it as fully served.              So, unfortunately, and, you

6         know, I've spoken to several congress members

7         offices and they're, you know, they're equally

8         frustrated about this because it doesn't -- I

9         mean, I think we are under the false impression

10        that more people have coverage than actually do

11        because of the way these census blocks work.                          And

12        obviously, we're also now challenged with a

13        threat to the post office as another way that

14        veterans are receiving information and

15        medications and jobs, with so many, highest, one

16        of the highest employers for veterans and veteran

17        families is the U.S. Post Office.                        So, I mean, I

18        think we have a number of different areas that we

19        need your advocacy to support our veterans on.

20        So thank you.

21                    MR. POMERANCE:              Thank you.

22                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Assemblywoman Hunter.

23                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Thank you so

24        much.    I, just looking back through my notes and



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2         just want to make sure that we get this on the

3         record.    So one of the first panelist we had an

4         extensive conversation relative to comorbidities

5         and then people who have been effected by Agent

6         Orange and they have service related

7         disabilities, and then we heard high numbers of

8         people who had died in the veterans homes, I

9         guess, 70 in Montrose and over 80 in Suffolk

10        County.    And one of the things that they had

11        brought forward was that there's not a universal

12        death certificate across the state and so because

13        of that if, if COVID is, is put on the death

14        certificate as the cause of death that service

15        related benefit, death benefits aren't paid

16        because they didn't die from Agent Orange or the

17        health related issues because of these toxins,

18        the death is related to COVID.

19                   And so, you know, that's a lot of

20        appeals process that our service members have to

21        go through, or actually their family members have

22        to go through because there is no universal death

23        certificate.        So I wanted to bring that up and

24        for you to be able to maybe comment on that.



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2         Another thing that had been brought forward and I

3         thought this was really good because especially

4         if you are talking about training, one of the

5         people from the VSOs had mentioned that in some

6         of these smaller areas especially in some of the

7         towns and rural areas, many of the judges are not

8         lawyers and that there's been huge eviction cases

9         where people have unemployment or evictions or,

10        you know, lots of different issues and especially

11        that they're not versed in the law and so if

12        there is any training mechanisms that maybe the

13        Department can send down to, you know, local

14        municipalities to work them through, especially

15        how it works with veterans in front of them.

16                   And I'm going to just give my

17        impassioned plea, I know with the division of

18        budget that they are not releasing funds, but if

19        we're talking about a financial burden one of the

20        VSO's was saying just the minimal $10,000 and I

21        know if hundreds of agencies are saying well,

22        it's only $10,000 that eats up, you know, adds up

23        to a lot of money, but we're talking about people

24        who served our country and you know, basically



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2         the foundation of our freedoms are from these,

3         these folks that clearly if there are any

4         agencies who, who deserve to get the first kind

5         of release of money is definitely is our veteran

6         service organizations.               So if you could speak to

7         the death certificates and maybe comment on

8         training since that is in your area I would

9         appreciate that.

10                   MR. POMERANCE:              Certainly, very

11        important points, I'm glad you raised them.                         With

12        the death certificates and the cause of death

13        issue more generally; I led a training on this

14        right after the COVID-19 outbreak happened.

15        There is case law from the U.S. Court of Appeals

16        for Veterans Claims on point here saying that

17        even though the primary cause of death listed on

18        a death certificate might be, for instance,

19        COVID-19, not a service connected condition, that

20        there is still a pathway for showing that, for

21        example, that Agent Orange condition, right, that

22        ischemic heart disease, that respiratory

23        condition; that was a contributory cause of

24        death, whether or not it's listed on a death



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2         certificate.        And so the work that we do in our

3         agency, the work that our county colleagues, our

4         city colleagues do, we prepare his applications

5         for these survivor's benefits even if it says

6         COVID-19 on the death certificate, we do our

7         detective work to make certain that we get the

8         evidence in place to show, okay, yeah, it says

9         COVID-19 here.         However, this person had ischemic

10        heart disease due to Agent Orange exposure and

11        [unintelligible] [03:42:48]

12                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Right, I just

13        want to interrupt you for one second because the

14        folks who were on before actually made mention of

15        doing the exact same thing that you're talking

16        about as far as like going through the process,

17        you know, with the process with family members of

18        saying, you know, they do have a pathway,

19        obviously, to getting their benefits, but that

20        takes a while.         We're talking about the

21        bureaucracy of government where if there was some

22        mechanism when someone perishes, that, you know,

23        on the front end that there could be something

24        related to on the death certificate this person



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2         has a service related issue, something.                           I'm not

3         a doctor, I'm not a lawyer, but it seems like

4         even though there is a pathway to get to that

5         point, putting family members through the ringer

6         for months and months in order to get there seems

7         excessive.

8                    MR. POMERANCE:              That definitely would be

9         a concern.      I guess the good news piece I can

10        offer to that is by filing the claim up front

11        that shows how those dots are connected, right,

12        how that, for example, the Agent Orange condition

13        is connected to the increased likelihood of

14        morbidity from COVID.              We've had good success in

15        getting those claims through without it taking

16        months and months by doing it sort of right the

17        first time, making certain the evidence gets up

18        front in the original claim for dependency and

19        indemnity compensation and not waiting for the VA

20        to deny and then to appeal.

21                   So I think there is a pathway there that

22        we are able to utilize even in absence of any

23        change to the vital documents.

24                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    And the



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2         training for the judges?

3                    MR. POMERANCE:              Yes, I'm glad you

4         mention that as well because I do serve on the

5         New York State Bar Association's Committee on

6         Veterans and one of the things that we've been

7         talking about with the chair of that committee,

8         Jessica Parker, is linking judges and attorneys

9         with trainings through an online based program

10        called Syke Armor [phonetic]; maybe the panelist

11        this morning mentioned it.                  Syke Armor is an

12        excellent online training initiative where you

13        have really short burst videos, not an all day

14        thing, but short snippets of information about

15        military cultural compensate.                    And that's what it

16        comes down to, right, and not just in the

17        practice of law, but in every profession, making

18        certain that people are as equipped as they

19        possibly can be to engage meaningful dialogs with

20        veterans; to understand veterans experiences

21        better; to know what to ask, what not to ask; to

22        have a better working knowledge of the benefits

23        spectrum out there.

24                   Syke Armor provides that and they do it



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2         in an online format so you can be in the comfort

3         of your home, you know, in your bathroom and

4         slippers and take those trainings.                       So more on

5         that to hopefully come soon, but it's definitely

6         a topic of interest that we are in discussions

7         about right now.           I'm glad you brought it up.

8                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                   Thank you.

9                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, Assemblyman

10        Ashby, Ashby.

11                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                  Thank you, Mr.

12        Chairman.      Thanks for being here today, Ben.                     My

13        questions, I know that DVS works hand in hand

14        with the state nursing homes in a limited

15        capacity in some way with the state veteran homes

16        and I know that there's not, may not be direct

17        oversight with them, but I know that they partner

18        in different, in different ways.                      And so I was

19        just wondering the administrators that I had the

20        opportunity to speak with said that some of the

21        limitations that they faced were in relation to

22        PPE initially, and it sounded like they ended up

23        getting enough PPE later on.                   Obviously, the

24        visitations we've heard from many people today



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2         stating that this is still an issue, and staffing

3         as well.     I'm wondering in terms of the

4         visitations and what DVS does in terms of veteran

5         outreach and connecting people to so many

6         different resources out there and families, in

7         particular.       Is there, is there a way or is

8         there, maybe something DVS could be doing an

9         initiative to help initiate visitations, whether

10        its online, you know, through a virtual setting

11        or in person in some way that the division could

12        be working on with our state nursing homes?

13                    MR. POMERANCE:             So, of course, any kind

14        of frontline question on that for state veterans

15        home is best suited for Department of Health or

16        for SUNY given their oversight rule of those

17        facilities.       However, I can tell you that we do

18        have a limited partnership on the benefit side

19        especially with the state veterans homes.                         We do

20        remain in contact with directors of those homes,

21        with Medicaid coordinators at those homes and

22        remain in touch with them throughout the COVID-19

23        pandemic.      For example, this past week in our

24        training, one of our speakers is based in Queens



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2         at our St. Aubin's Queen's office and he was

3         talking about work that he has done to make

4         certain that benefits continue flowing to

5         veterans who are eligible for them who are in the

6         states veterans home, and that same level of work

7         and advocacy applies statewide.                       As far as the

8         visitation piece, specifically, again that would

9         be best suited for DOH for pursuing; however, if

10        there's anything that, you know, the division can

11        do to get materials into homes or anything like

12        that, to get the information out there about our

13        services we're always ready and willing to do

14        that.

15                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   I'm not asking

16        it, I'm not asking in consideration of revising

17        policy or anything like that, but in terms of

18        outreach, I mean, these residents are veterans,

19        right?

20                     MR. POMERANCE:              Absolutely.

21                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   And DVS

22        coordinates with veterans whether they're in a

23        nursing home or not and it would make sense to me

24        and I think many other people out there that



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2         these are veterans, they're in a state veterans

3         nursing home and I, and we've heard over and over

4         again today and, you know, really for many people

5         each day that, you know, the visitations are

6         really a big issue right now and I think it's an

7         opportunity for the division to maybe put an

8         extra effort in there to connecting veterans with

9         support systems, right.               We have all these

10        nonprofits and other agencies out there trying to

11        connect people, you know, who don't have a good

12        support system.

13                   Well, here we have a number of veterans

14        who are in state run veterans nursing homes and I

15        think the division could maybe take a harder look

16        at trying to connect these veterans to their

17        family members right now, and I'm wondering if

18        you would be willing to do that?

19                   MR. POMERANCE:              We would do anything to

20        improve connections between veterans and their

21        families and that goes beyond the nursing home

22        context, and one of the things I've been

23        grabbling with as a division during the COVID-19

24        pandemic has been the issue of isolation.                         You



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2         know, one of the things we've done during this

3         time is we're now part of SAMSHA's governor's

4         challenge focusing on suicide prevention among

5         veterans and their families, and probably the

6         most frequent issue discussed in those meetings

7         has been isolation for veterans in nursing homes

8         or not in nursing homes during the COVID-19

9         period.    You know, isolation, loneliness, not

10        having the same level of social interaction that

11        one is used to, that can be a predictor,

12        unfortunately, of suicide or self-harm, and

13        anything that we can do as a division to try and

14        avoid isolating circumstances from occurring, we

15        are happy to take a look at and to do whatever we

16        can to make that happen.

17                   Again, the clinical decisions, I'm not a

18        doctor, I don't play one on TV, but that's

19        [unintelligible] [03:50:37] to DOH and SUNY with

20        regard to running their homes.                    The broader

21        question of isolation and our division's

22        commitment to outreach to avoid isolating

23        circumstances from occurring, we absolutely are

24        happy to do whatever we can in that regard.



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2                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   I appreciate

3         that and I will relay that to the administrators

4         that I have been in contact with that the

5         division plans on helping with that, with best

6         effort.     Thank you.

7                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Senator Ritchie.

8                     SENATOR RITCHIE:               Thank you, I'd just

9         like to follow up with the assemblyman's

10        comments.       I think that visitation, we're at a

11        dire time and that someone has to step up to the

12        plate and look for a solution there and I would

13        hope that your office would be a champion for

14        that.    Like I said earlier, I can't imagine

15        families being apart that long and I certainly

16        can't imagine the families who didn't get to say

17        goodbye to their loved ones.                    So someone's going

18        to have to step up to the plate.                       I would also

19        like to comment on Assemblywoman Barrett's

20        comment on broadband.               I understand the numbers,

21        but I can tell you each and every day I have

22        multiple calls to my office, especially now with

23        school online that broadband it's certainly not

24        97% or the numbers that appear on that report are



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2         not accurate at least in my district.                           So that's

3         something else I'd like you to take back.

4                      The next questions, unfortunately, for

5         you you're the only representative here from the

6         executive so they have to do with the quarantine

7         and our military and the National Guard.                            I've

8         heard from a number of individuals who have not

9         been able to come home because of the quarantine,

10        even one whose wife was having serious surgery,

11        even though I would deem them essential.                            Some of

12        the guards have not been able to go back to work

13        because they were told even though they were

14        essential they still had to quarantine even

15        though they were serving the state, so that's an

16        issue.     There's been a question about how many

17        missions have they been on, has anyone been

18        infected, did they have enough personal

19        protection equipment?                So that's something else I

20        would hope that you could pass on and get the

21        information.

22                     And finally with the pandemic going on

23        there's a real concern that the guard number has

24        dropped from 3600 to 2812 and that's something I



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2         hope someone to speak to.                  And then the last

3         question as you have said earlier is best

4         directed at the Department of Health, they're not

5         here.    There is a real concern over the veterans

6         and the number of deaths at nursing homes and the

7         difference between our veteran homes and also

8         the, the nursing homes at large.                       So that is

9         something that I wish that you could take back

10        and get some information for us.                       Those are

11        questions that I came prepared to ask, they're

12        questions that I've heard from people not only in

13        my district, but across the state and questions

14        that I hope at some point will get an answer too.

15                    MR. POMERANCE:              And I apologize that I

16        cannot answer them for you.                   I'm not a doctor or

17        a general officer of the National Guard I'm

18        afraid and so to speak on their behalf as far as

19        military personnel decisions would be not only

20        improper, but also inaccurate, and I would not

21        want to give you information that is not correct

22        and on point.         But certainly I can take those

23        questions back as best as I can.

24                    SENATOR RITCHIE:               And certainly I



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2         understand that, but I also wanted to make sure

3         that they were on the record because these are

4         questions that I continually have been asked, so

5         thank you.

6                      MR. POMERANCE:              Understood and thank

7         you.

8                      SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you and first if

9         there's any other participants in the hearing

10        that has a question please turn on your video

11        screen.      Ben, we've talked in the past about a

12        number of issues.             I agree with all of the points

13        that have been made just now in this conversation

14        and I think we do have to get the broadband up to

15        speed.     And the death certificates is a critical

16        issue, too and visitation is a critical issue.                           I

17        wonder if we recognize what's happened here and

18        our ability to suddenly do distance functioning

19        of different types, learning and everything else,

20        if this doesn't open up an opportunity from a

21        training standpoint and from veterans programs

22        standpoint, to reach some of the areas in the

23        state in the past that it was a little more

24        difficult.        If we're not in a situation where,



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2         you know, sometimes at the end of the dark tunnel

3         there is a little bit of light and maybe the

4         opportunity to do distance programs through the

5         internet can start, you know, if someone could

6         touch someone if you will, visually at least that

7         we haven't touched in the past.                     So my question

8         to you is do you see the opportunity to change

9         some programs to capture, if you will, the

10        benefit of distance, distance activity via the

11        internet?

12                    MR. POMERANCE:             Senator, I would say if

13        there's not only a little bit of light, but

14        actually a lot of light at the end of that

15        tunnel.    We've been doing that since the COVID-19

16        outbreak began.          We have shifted to a far more

17        virtual agency than we ever have been before and

18        we have worked with our partners in county

19        government, in New York City's government, in the

20        not-for-profit sphere to find ways to partner

21        with them in doing the same.                   The training from

22        this past week is a perfect example.                         There are

23        162 people taking part in that training from

24        their homes, obviously safe, obviously socially



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2         distant, but still getting the information across

3         to them.     Not only that you were able to bring in

4         speakers for the trainings that we've had during

5         the COVID period who are national experts.                         We

6         probably couldn't have been able to pay for

7         travel and hotel and everything else to bring to

8         New York State, but through distance learning we

9         were successful in having people like the chief

10        judge of the Court of Appeals for Veterans claims

11        and the chairman of the U.S. Board of Veterans

12        Appeals, and just today, probably the leading

13        pension attorney in the country training us as a

14        group about how do to our jobs better and more

15        effectively for the veterans of our state.

16                   Same goes for our work with the veterans

17        themselves, you know, the traditional model of

18        sitting across the table in the office is a

19        little bit different now than it used to be,

20        obviously, we've had some office that have

21        reopened when it's been deemed safe to do so with

22        the proper precautions in place, we're talking

23        Plexiglas, we're talking PPE, we're talking

24        social distancing, all those measures to keep



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2         safety for our own colleagues and for the

3         clients, but those areas that we have not been

4         able to reopen fully yet, we have improved our

5         digital work tremendously, starting with that

6         outreach by e-mail.              Those buddy checks, you

7         know, 30,000 e-mails going out saying hey, we

8         know you're a client of ours, you gave us your e-

9         mail, just checking in.                How are you doing?            What

10        are your needs?           What are things that we can

11        assist with?         And we got a lot of feedback from

12        that.

13                    One example that comes to mind right

14        away was there was a veteran's widow in the

15        Albany area who had never applied for a benefit,

16        financial benefit for tax free monthly dollars

17        from the federal government that she was eligible

18        for and had been for some time, but never had,

19        you know, reached to anyone about it.                          That e-

20        mail, that connection with her opened the doors

21        for our veterans benefits advisor in that county

22        to work with her virtually, remotely, get the

23        paperwork together, file the claim to the VA and

24        get that benefit approved.                   And the last piece of



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2         this is with our case management software and I'm

3         particularly proud of this as are my colleagues.

4         We worked from the outbreak of COVID onward on a

5         rush order if you will, with MicroPath [phonetic]

6         the vendors who built our case management

7         software called Vedox [phonetic] to imbed in an

8         electronic interface in that system, you were

9         their first clients in the country to request

10        this.    And that allows it, you know, like I

11        mentioned in the testimony, to file that claim

12        with the VA, to work with the client remotely and

13        to get the claim package into the VA remotely

14        without a single in-person appointment being

15        needed, not a single sheet of paper being printed

16        and by doing that we actually get a date stamped

17        receipt right away from the VA after submission

18        showing yeah, it was received and here's official

19        verification of the date and time on which it was

20        received.

21                    So it's actually has improved our

22        processing because of the fact that COVID-19

23        forced us to become a more digitally inclined

24        agency.



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2                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you.

3         Assemblywoman Buttenschon.

4                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER MARIANNE BUTTENSCHON:

5         Thank you for the opportunity to all the chairs

6         and to our panelists.              I just have a couple

7         questions and first the comments that I reconfirm

8         as my colleague stated the importance of ensuring

9         the possibility of getting family members

10        connected to veterans in our state nursing homes

11        as well as the quarantine issue that was brought

12        up earlier has been a concern that has been

13        addressed within our office.                   In regards to your

14        testimony today, I just want clarification.                            You

15        stated that you had 12 counties that received the

16        accreditation from the state.                    Is that correct?

17                   MR. POMERANCE:              That's correct, from our

18        last training.

19                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                           So how

20        many counties total have it?

21                   MR. POMERANCE:              We have more than 20

22        counties that have it now and there are more

23        upcoming, probably in September to have another

24        round of that accreditation training who are in



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2         the process of doing the first steps right now,

3         the online training through the VA called Trip,

4         who will then be sort of the next group to go

5         through that process.

6                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                           So right

7         now there's 20 that have completed it and it's an

8         annual training?

9                     MR. POMERANCE:              It's, well so there's a

10        couple of different layers to the training side

11        here.    What I was talking about was the training

12        that we needed to provide them to actually get

13        them their accreditation under the state's

14        division's power of attorney.                     There also was a

15        semiannual training we provide, obviously twice a

16        year, once in May, once in August this year; both

17        of those were handled virtually and those

18        counties took part in that as well.                         Those two

19        trainings are open to any county that wants to

20        take part regardless whether they have the

21        accreditation from the state or not.                          The

22        accreditation from the state opens up certain

23        additional pathways, certain additional services

24        and accesses if you will by virtue of that state



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2         accreditation, but for the semi-annual trainings

3         anybody can take part regardless of accreditation

4         affiliation.

5                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                          So prior

6         to COVID is that a general standard that only 20

7         counties participate overall or I mean, we're in

8         August I just wondered when you said this is

9         annually.

10                    MR. POMERANCE:             So to be specific,

11        talking about the semi-annual trainings?

12                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                          No, the

13        annual training that you addressed in your

14        testimony.

15                    MR. POMERANCE:             This was the first time

16        we had this type of larger scale accreditation

17        training for a bunch of counties taking part in

18        it at one time.          So that's a larger number, that

19        group of 12 counties taking part in the training

20        together, that was our first time doing that

21        large group.        Typically, what we've done in the

22        past, for example, earlier this year we had

23        Genesee County, Orleans County and Seneca County

24        all coming online around the same time.                            My



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2         colleague, Sue Done [phonetic] who is the

3         associate training technician for the western

4         region of the state and I, went out to Batavia

5         and out to Waterloo and we did that kind of

6         training in person with those county agencies to

7         get up to speed with the tools and technologies

8         that they needed.           Obviously, with COVID-19 that

9         kind of travel and in person training wasn't

10        feasible, so it turned into a larger scale online

11        group with multiple counties taking part.

12                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                           I just

13        think it's a valuable service for our veterans

14        and I would like to see it, all counties involved

15        as much as they would be interested in and I

16        just, to me I just wondered the participation

17        seemed to be low.

18                   MR. POMERANCE:              With this last week of

19        training, which is open to any county regardless

20        of affiliation, we had close to 40 county

21        partners taking part.              So of our American Legion

22        accredited, some of Veterans of Foreign Wars

23        accredited.       It doesn't matter, the doors are

24        open for them with those semiannual trainings to



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2         have them participate and we saw large numbers

3         for that.      We saw large numbers for our

4         semiannual training in May and we've had multiple

5         sort of mini trainings in between on topics like

6         clear and unmistakable error cases and topics

7         like un-employability claims, and we have seen

8         widespread county participation for that as well.

9                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                          Okay and

10        just finally, if you were to rank your three,

11        prioritize your three challenges from, from one

12        to three, what are they?

13                    MR. POMERANCE:             Are we talking

14        challenges just because of COVID-19, challenge

15        overall.

16                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                          As an

17        agency, yeah, just as today as you

18        [unintelligible] [04:04:32] in the office, what

19        do you see?

20                    MR. POMERANCE:             I think one challenge

21        that we have in New York State is the fact that

22        there's a lot of veterans who do no self-identify

23        as veterans for a variety of reason.                         One of

24        which I think is that New York State law has



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2         varying definitions of that term including the

3         law that governs our own agency, which refers to

4         a veteran being a person who served in a war

5         declared by congress.              There hasn't been one of

6         those for a while and people do not feel that

7         they self-identify with that status because of

8         those types of disconnects; that's one concern.

9                    Second concern that we certainly have

10        and I believe it was mentioned in the earlier

11        panels is services for veterans who have a less

12        than honorable discharge, who have often been

13        told by governments and often have been told by

14        other veterans you don't qualify as one of us.

15        And yet, in fact, there could be benefits

16        available that they're leaving on the table and

17        we want to make certain that we continue to reach

18        out to them more effectively in a wider number

19        than we are already doing to make certain that

20        they know we're here to serve them, we're not

21        going to judge them about what their DD214, they

22        discharge paperwork says.                 New York State's

23        advocacy agency is for all veterans, underscore

24        all, regardless of character of discharge and



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2         will work with them on upgrade cases, with

3         character of discharge determinations at the VA

4         level, whatever it is, to make certain they get

5         linked with the benefits and the services that

6         they need.

7                      And if I were to pick a third matter to

8         which frankly, I do not have an answer, but it's

9         one that's very important.                    It's a question of

10        transportation, right, and this goes back to the

11        questions asked earlier about rural areas and

12        what challenges exist for veterans in those

13        areas.     There certainly are services, the

14        Disabled American Veterans, for example, have

15        their vans that go to VA facilities.                           Certain

16        counties have transportation systems in their own

17        individual county.              But I would say overall and

18        you probably heard this earlier from some of the

19        counties that spoke, there are transportation

20        challenges that exist for veterans in getting to

21        a VA hospital or getting to a VA outpatient

22        clinic just because of the nature of where some

23        of these veterans in our state lives.

24                     That's three kind of right off the cuff



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2         that we've seen as challenges that we'd like to

3         all work together to address.

4                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BUTTENSCHON:                          Thank you.

5                     MR. POMERANCE:             Thank you.

6                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, Ben, we all thank

7         you very much for participating today and we all

8         look forward to working with you as the year

9         continues to unfold and the new session begins,

10        so thanks very much.

11                    MR. POMERANCE:             Thank you for the work

12        that all of you do and your advocacy on behalf of

13        veterans.      We always appreciate all that you do

14        within our state division.                  Thank you.

15                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay.

16                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    Thank you,

17        thanks for being here.

18                    SENATOR BROOKS:             So if the control room

19        would bring in the folks from panel 5 that would

20        be great.

21                    MALE STAFF:          All present.

22                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Alright, great thank

23        you.   Good afternoon, everyone.                    We want to

24        welcome you to the, our veterans hearing today on



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2         the impact and effect of the COVID virus.                         We're

3         going to ask that each of you give a

4         presentation, try to limit that presentation to

5         five minutes in time and then we will have

6         questions.      I want to give an opportunity to the

7         chairs and ranking members to make some opening

8         remarks, we'll begin with our co-chair from the

9         State Assembly, Assemblywoman Burnett, please.

10        Barrett, I'm sorry.

11                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Barrett,

12        changing my name on me here.

13                   SENATOR BROOKS:              I, yeah, sorry.

14                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

15        thank you all for being here, this has really

16        been an informative and powerful day of testimony

17        and I think one of the key themes here has been

18        mental health and suicidal ideation and how this

19        whole COVID situation has exacerbated that for

20        many of our veterans and so I, you know, I know

21        that that's the wheelhouse that many of you work

22        in and look forward to hearing your thoughts and

23        ways that we might be able to work with you to,

24        to, you know, to help that situation.                         So thank



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2         you again for being here.

3                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, Assemblywoman

4         Hunter, please.

5                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                   Good afternoon,

6         welcome all of you for being here today.                          I

7         definitely look forward to hearing to your

8         testimony.      Many of your agencies I'm very

9         familiar with and interested to hear what you

10        have been able to provide relative to some of the

11        outdoors and some of the activities that are non-

12        traditional for our veterans definitely during

13        COVID, so thank you so much for coming today.

14                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Senator Ritchie.

15                    SENATOR RITCHIE:              I to would just like

16        say thank you for being here today.                        Some of you

17        I am very familiar with the services you provide,

18        others not so much so I appreciate you being here

19        and look forward to hearing what you're able to

20        provide our veterans, thank you.

21                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Assemblyman Ashby.

22                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                  Thank you, Mr.

23        Chairman.      Thank you to everyone in the panel for

24        coming in today.           For those of you who are prior



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2         service, thank you for your continued dedication

3         to our veterans and their families in a time

4         right now when its desperately needed.                            We are so

5         grateful for your continued service, look forward

6         to hearing from you.

7                     SENATOR BROOKS:             Thank you and again we

8         all, everybody here in this, in this hearing is

9         very, very committed to providing for our

10        veterans.      This is one area there are no

11        political lines here, everybody understands the

12        service that our veterans have provided and our

13        responsibility to them.               So if we could, we'll

14        start with Marcelle and work our way through all

15        of you, thank you.

16                    CMSGT. MARCELLE LEIS, DIRECTOR OF

17        VETERANS SERVICES, ASSOCIATION FOR MENTAL HEALTH

18        AND WELLNESS:        Thank you, Senator Brooks, co-

19        chair Barrett and the entire committee for the

20        invitation to speak on behalf of the veterans we

21        serve in our communities.                 I also want to take a

22        moment to thank my colleagues on a panel,

23        especially those veterans that are working to

24        support the health and wellbeing of those who



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2         have served in our nation's Armed Forces.                          As a

3         military member, a career airman, I spent 24

4         years in the New York Air International Guard so

5         I'm familiar with the culture and the commitment

6         that our veterans service agencies have to

7         helping through the integration process.

8                    I would like to take this opportunity to

9         discuss the medical and mental health concerns in

10        the veteran population as we are seeing it as a

11        result of COVID, as well as the essential social

12        support systems through peer engagement.                          As some

13        have already mentioned today, veterans are

14        already in an increased risk for suicide,

15        substance use disorders and homelessness.                          I

16        bring this perspective today to the conversation

17        that comes from the veterans we serve here on

18        Long Island and recognition of the impact the

19        pandemic is having on our region.                       With social

20        isolation many did not have access to telehealth

21        services as they were not connected through

22        technology.       Therefore, we were not able to

23        receive appropriate medical and/or mental health

24        treatment.



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2                    Subsequent comorbidities in the veteran

3         population increased the risk of contracting

4         Coronavirus.        We also know that social isolation

5         can increase the risk of alcohol and/or substance

6         use.   Financial concerns are another major

7         component of the increased levels of stress.

8         Many working in what were deemed non-essential

9         work places no longer have the financial

10        stability nor the sense of purpose to get up each

11        day.   Although we cannot pinpoint one single

12        cause for suicide, it most often occurs when

13        stressors and health issues converge.                         Depression

14        and substance abuse are known to be significant

15        risk factors.        According to a veterans group that

16        recently testified on Capitol Hill, the challenge

17        of serving the mental health needs of at risk

18        veterans have been compounded by the fact that

19        many veterans, particularly older vets, do not

20        have access or can't afford necessary technology,

21        including high speed internet.

22                   This version of the digital divide

23        reduces access to vital mental health care,

24        including access to medication and can increase



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2         the risk of suicide.             The VA's national center

3         for posttraumatic stress disorder identified that

4         symptoms can be magnified by the COVID-19

5         pandemic to include intense feelings of being

6         unsafe or unguarded with veterans struggling with

7         PTSD, that can increase anxiety.                      Veterans that

8         want to avoid other people are more than usually

9         worried about contracting the virus.                         Hearing

10        others talking about the pandemic as if we're

11        fighting a war or battle with COVID-19 may bring

12        up uncomfortable feelings and memories, thereby

13        triggering negative emotional responses.

14                   Therapeutic coping skills are not

15        available because we're forced to spend less time

16        outdoors, gyms, movie theaters and concert venues

17        have been closed and spending time with friends

18        in close quarters was not recommended.                            So why is

19        this so crucial to understand?                    As you are all

20        aware some of the additional issues in the

21        veterans population include PTSD and TBI, in the

22        post-911 era, that is the signature root of

23        combat operations.            It causes people to feel

24        anxious, unsafe or on high alert.                       They may see



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2         the world as dangerous or worry about the ability

3         to handle difficult situations.                     Trusting others

4         and being intimate with others can be

5         challenging.        Chronic pain that many veterans

6         experience can lead to self-medication and abuse

7         of prescription pain killers, street drugs,

8         alcoholism and other substance use disorders.

9         All these conditions are intensified during

10        periods of extreme stress such as the pandemic,

11        coupled with the social isolation there is a

12        cause for concern.

13                   We must also recognize the aging veteran

14        population, our most vulnerable and significantly

15        largest cohort of veterans in our nation.

16        Vietnam veterans, in particular, are at greatest

17        risk with regard to chronic service related

18        conditions and there is no debating the increase

19        in suicide among the veteran population, the

20        reasons behind suicidal thoughts or attempts are

21        complex, but among veterans the most commonly

22        cited factors leading to increased suicide risk

23        are experience more social isolation, limited

24        access to healthcare and increased risk of mental



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2         health and substance use disorders.                        These are

3         factors that were amplified during COVID.

4         There's also an increased risk of homelessness.

5         Some factors to be associated with veterans'

6         homelessness are mental illness, extreme poverty,

7         unemployment, combat and traumatic experiences,

8         substance abuse and PTSD.

9                    Many of the homeless veterans we see in

10        our communities are not cognizant of safety

11        protocols that reduce the spread of coronavirus

12        and with many in the higher risk category are

13        sitting targets.           We saw an influx of veterans in

14        our emergency homeless shelters.                      With COVID

15        there was significant reduction of access to

16        services that would allow them to move forward in

17        the system and find appropriate permanent

18        housing.     Our agency was able to secure smart

19        devices for those shelter residents that did not

20        have access to internet or telehealth, DSS

21        appointments or online peer support groups.                         We

22        found many of the residents were not compliant

23        with the governor's stay at home order and there

24        was no enforcement of the policy.                       Most residents



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2         that were not compliant presented with mental

3         health issues.         I'm happy to report that we did

4         not have a single case of COVID in our housing

5         programs.      We did take a substantial financial

6         hit with the additional measures put in place to

7         ensure public health and safety.                      We have applied

8         for FEMA grants to assist with the financial

9         burden.

10                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Okay, I hate, I hate to

11        interrupt, but we've exceeded our time limit, but

12        we'll go back to some things when we get a

13        chance.    Alex, if you would give us your

14        presentation, please.

15                    MR. ALEXANDER J. BEHM, EXECUTIVE

16        DIRECTOR, CLEAR PATH FOR VETERANS:                       Thank you,

17        Chairman Brooks and members of the Senate

18        Committee on Veterans Homeland Security &

19        Military Affairs, Chairwoman Barrett and members

20        of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, Chairwoman

21        Hunter and members of the Subcommittee on Women

22        Veterans.      Thank you very much for the invitation

23        and opportunity to appear before you this

24        afternoon.      I serve as the executive director at



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2         Clear Path for Veterans in Chittenango.                           I'm a

3         post-911 Marine Corp Veteran and I'm honored to

4         serve fellow veterans, military members and their

5         families in my role at Clear Path for Veterans.

6         Our staff of 24 provide essential programs and

7         services to 23 counties in upstate New York.                          Of

8         the 24 staff members 12 are veterans, all of whom

9         have served in one or more major conflicts.                           I

10        highlight these figures as they define how our

11        programs and services are built on the foundation

12        of peer support and community engagement.

13                   COVID-19 brought and continues to bring

14        many hardships to Clear Path for Veterans and

15        those that depend on our organization's essential

16        programs and services.               Key points that have been

17        discussed throughout the testimony, social

18        isolation, unemployment and the lack of access to

19        resources have grossly impacted those in the 23

20        counties Clear Path actively serves, especially

21        in rural communities.              Due to the rapid changes

22        in our environment because of COVID-19, our

23        leadership team established the Clear Path for

24        Veterans COVID-19 community taskforce and we



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2         focused on three main deliveries of services;

3         emergency food assistance, career services

4         support and social engagement programming, along

5         with mental health triage services.

6                    The emergency food assistance we

7         provided was in response to a large request from

8         our rural communities in the 23 counties.                         We

9         delivered emergency food boxes to almost 600

10        families in the last three months.                       This also

11        included fresh meal kits we prepared in our

12        kitchen to subsidize the families who cannot gain

13        access to immediate food resources.                        As far as

14        career services and social engagement programming

15        our warriors working program provides career

16        assistance to those facing unemployment and

17        looking to get back to work.                   We worked with over

18        200 veterans in the last two months providing

19        those essential services as well.

20                   As far as social engagement we were

21        forced to discontinue our onsite events such as

22        our canteen lunches every Wednesday with over 200

23        veterans that visit our facility.                       Many of them

24        in the demographic of 60 years and older, leaving



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2         them at home and in isolation.                     That also led us

3         to create a buddy check program that I've also

4         heard been talked about in previous testimony.

5         This program allowed staff to reach out to all

6         the veterans we serve and also allow the veterans

7         in our community to reach out to Clear Path to

8         simply talk to somebody on our staff as well as

9         our mental health clinician when needed.                             And it

10        also allowed us to provide those necessary

11        referrals other community resources.

12                    As far as virtual programming, we

13        delivered classes such as cooking classes, family

14        support sessions, physical fitness events; all

15        these were live through social media platforms

16        and the taskforce continued to connect with the

17        community members who we could no longer serve on

18        site.    The buddy check program reached 733

19        veterans in less than two months just recently,

20        so it has proven to be very effective.                             The

21        taskforce continues to deliver services, since

22        March we've worked with just short of 2000

23        veterans and their families in our 23 counties.

24        We have been mobile so we're deemed essential



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2         staff who are out in the communities, especially

3         the rural communities, knocking on doors, making

4         sure veterans we serve are still in good health

5         and meeting any needs they may have.

6                    One specific program that was our

7         flagship program at Clear Path, our canine

8         training program designed for veterans with

9         posttraumatic stress and military sexual trauma.

10        It has seen short mid, and potentially long term

11        effects due to COVID-19.                We're not able to

12        deliver some of the socialization to the actual

13        canines with their trainers so we are losing

14        traction in that area, and trying to get creative

15        doing it virtually, but that's one of the

16        programs that we do need to have, the physical

17        veteran on site so we've been trying to do what

18        we can while practicing social distancing.

19                   Lastly, as many of the panels have

20        mentioned are funding, we do rely on some of the

21        funding from the state and the budget and we are

22        also losing traction with our local funding,

23        private donors, which we heavily rely on as well

24        as community businesses have declined in



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2         donations.      So we have retained all of our staff

3         at this time, but we are seeing shortfalls due to

4         not being able to have fundraising events on site

5         and I'll just close with thanking Ben Pomerance,

6         who I watching speak earlier and the State

7         Division of Veterans Services.                    They've been very

8         responsive to our needs and we've done a lot of

9         great work with them during COVID and we would

10        like to continue that great partnership with the

11        state and other local agencies as well.                            So thank

12        you again for giving me time today and I'll look

13        forward to questions at the end of the panel.

14                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you, Eva.

15                   MS. EVA USADI, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR,

16        TRAUMA AND RESILIENCY RESOURCES, INC.:                            Yes,

17        thank you very much for inviting me, Chairman

18        Brooks and everybody else, pleasure to be here.

19        My name is Eva Usadi and I'm the founder and

20        executive director of Trauma and Resiliency

21        Resources.      We're a public charity based in New

22        York and we run programs in [unintelligible]

23        [04:23:16] of New York.               Our main program is a

24        seven day intensive residential treatment



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2         approach to suicide prevention as well as trauma

3         resolution for combat veterans and we work with

4         veterans of all eras.              And since this pandemic we

5         have not been able to conduct one program.                         We

6         cancelled our program in March that was fully

7         enrolled.      We cancelled our program in June that

8         was also fully enrolled because people keep

9         having their enrollment transferred from one

10        program to the next and really our next iteration

11        is scheduled for October, but we're seriously in

12        doubt that we're going to be able to do that.

13                    And largely because our program is a

14        very intimate approach, it's a very intensive

15        approach.      We don't work with the numbers of

16        veterans that many of you do and I really applaud

17        you for the amazing things that you do in the

18        community.      It's a very intensive, dedicated and

19        targeted approach primarily to repairing moral

20        injury and because we live together, we eat all

21        our meals together, most of the program

22        modalities are done in group.                    We have very close

23        contact and we just recognize that we really

24        can't safely do that especially because we have



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2         Vietnam veterans in every program and we know

3         that they are at higher risk for complications,

4         especially with exposure to COVID-19.

5                    So the other thing that we have been

6         doing and we are the recipients of a VA adaptive

7         sports grant as of last year and so we've also

8         been doing trainings for professionals, we call

9         them Train the Trainer events.                    We've only been

10        able to do one in person, which was a very well

11        attended January suicide prevention summit that

12        we had clinicians and veterans service providers

13        from seven states come to spend three days with

14        us, and we've had to cancel Train the Trainers in

15        June, July, also in April, but we are going to be

16        doing this virtually; these we can do virtually.

17        And because of the pandemic the VA's adaptive

18        sports desk permitted us to transfer deliverables

19        from our warrior camp face to face programs that

20        we can't conduct into a webinar series.                           And the

21        webinar series highlights, each webinar is on one

22        particular aspect of our program and it

23        highlights very specifically how that works and

24        why we do it and how we conduct it from EMDR to



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2         Yoga to equine assisted psychotherapy, very good

3         explanations with a teacher and also a combat

4         veteran who's been through a program on each

5         webinar.

6                     And we just concluded our 7th last night

7         and we are going to continue these and this was

8         very much a way of us reaching out to the

9         community to keep people connected, to overcome

10        the isolation that we're very concerned about.

11        And I just wanted to highlight a couple of things

12        that make us quite different in terms of the way

13        we work and the first is that we decided early on

14        that we would work with combat veterans of all

15        eras.    We would work with suicidal veterans and

16        we actively recruit them and we work with

17        veterans with bad paper.                 So that's an important

18        thing for all of you to know, if you don't know

19        where services are, we never question what has

20        happened to somebody during their service and we

21        also know that a lot of these bad paper

22        discharges are based on posttraumatic stress.

23                    So we have been conducting our warrior

24        camp program since 2013.                 We have zero suicides



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2         post program.        We are still able to say that as a

3         statistic we have lost nobody post program, and

4         we think that this is very much because we focus

5         on military moral injury and I can talk a little

6         bit more about that if people are interested, but

7         we think it's paradigm shift away from PTSD

8         because it really undercuts what's underneath

9         that, the wounding to the heart and soul that

10        happens for so many people who serve in combat.

11                   So, you know, what I think we really

12        need in terms of reaching out to more veterans

13        given the fact that we, so many programs are not

14        able to function face to face, I think that we

15        need to start thinking about expanding telehealth

16        to almost a national license for qualified

17        therapists who are able to provide trauma therapy

18        remotely like I've been doing this since March in

19        my private practice.             But, you know, there is a

20        reason that a lot of people from underserved

21        states and communities come to our program and

22        it's because they can't get these services

23        elsewhere.      So I think this is a conversation

24        that really, you know, could be had in terms of



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2         expanding services to people that don't have

3         access to the, especially now.                     Thank you very

4         much.

5                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you very

6         much.    Aaron.

7                     MR. AARON LEONARD, CAMPAIGN

8         REPRESENTATIVE, SIERRA CLUB MILITARY OUTDOORS:

9         Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

10        My name is Aaron Leonard, I've served in the Army

11        from 1997 until I retired in 2014.                        I currently

12        work in the outdoor, in the venture education

13        fields with the Sierra Club Military Outdoors.

14        We offer veterans and nature based programs to

15        help them transition from the military to a

16        healthy and purposeful civilian lifestyle often

17        through simple day hikes or short three day trips

18        in the New York parks and public lands.                            The

19        thought [unintelligible] [04:28:34] was my

20        experiences and observations as a senior Army

21        leader where I saw many service members struggle

22        both during their time in the military and with

23        their transitions back into civilian life

24        regardless of when or where they served.                           For



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2         today's testimony I'm going to share an example

3         of the effects our program has had on two female

4         veterans that are living in New York City.

5                    Prior to the pandemic our program model

6         for female veterans provided community based

7         volunteer led opportunities for veterans and

8         their families who join us for single or multi-

9         day trips where most participants saw

10        improvements in their sense of belonging, self-

11        esteem and reduced sense of loneliness and

12        overall improvement with their sense of

13        wellbeing.      In March all outdoor programs in the

14        Sierra Club was indefinitely postponed now

15        extended through the end of the February of 2021.

16                   One concern, obviously, for us is the

17        effects that halting our outdoor program for a

18        year or more has had or will have on our

19        participants.        Two women, Charmain Denise and

20        Sheila Hudson, both veterans living in the Bronx

21        are allowing me to share some of their personal

22        story with you today as an example.                        Charmain is

23        a single mother, an African-American and a combat

24        vet who grew up in Belize and Queens.                         She



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2         enlisted in the Army in 1989, served in Desert

3         Storm with the first infantry division and was a

4         basic training drill sergeant at Fort Jackson in

5         South Carolina.          Finally, retiring from the Army

6         in 2014, Charmain moved to the Bronx following

7         her retirement because as she says, I wanted to

8         be near Harlem and the Bronx Zoo.

9                    Charmain is a disabled veteran who

10        struggles with depression and anxiety, often

11        finding new environments and meeting new people

12        to be especially difficult.                  Before she joined

13        our outings group it was not uncommon for

14        Charmain to isolate in her apartment for days at

15        a time.    Charmain was very purposeful in joining

16        in us in that she knew participating would help

17        her to regain her life and join in exploring the

18        natural world with a group of female veterans

19        with whom she shared so many similar experiences

20        was liberating for her.               I remember dropping

21        Charmain off at her apartment in the Bronx at the

22        end of our first trip, what I did not know is

23        that she didn't sit outside her apartment for a

24        time to avoid losing that experience.                         Charmain



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2         went on to participate in many outings us

3         recruiting other women like her in the months

4         that followed.

5                     Charmain tells us that the experience

6         that she was having with nature and in nature

7         with other women helped her to get outside daily

8         and be more present and mindful in her life,

9         eventual allowing her to reduce her medication

10        dosage for depression and anxiety symptoms, which

11        she attributes to spending more time in nature.

12        Unfortunately, Charmain reports that her

13        depression and anxiety has returned to their

14        previous level shortly after our program was put

15        on hold during this pandemic.                    She has had to

16        make some life changes including increasing her

17        medication dose to again manage her returning

18        symptoms.

19                    Clearly, a concern we have for all

20        participants in not only our program, but any

21        social programs across New York.                      Shelia Hudson

22        is also a black woman, single mother and a

23        military vet.        Her family moved to Brooklyn in

24        '73 and she enlisted in the Army as a cook in



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2         1978, serving in both Fort Jackson and in Germany

3         during the Cold War.             She moved back to Brooklyn

4         after leaving the Army and did not identify as a

5         veteran until after she had moved into the

6         Franklin shelter in the Bronx, which allowed her

7         to transition into a homeless shelter for

8         veterans and eventually recapture her dependence.

9         Shelia met Charmain in the Bronx VA where

10        Charmain invited her to participate in our

11        outings group.         Shelia tells us that meeting

12        Charmain, our volunteer leaders and the other

13        female veterans in our group helped her to

14        understand that she really was a vet and could

15        heal through exposure to nature with other women.

16                   For the first time in her life she was

17        participating in outdoor activities and doing so

18        with women that she felt safe with.                        By

19        participating in these activities with other

20        female veterans and seeing how other women like

21        her were benefiting from these [unintelligible]

22        [04:32:35] with nature, Shelia learned it was

23        possible for her also to recover from decades old

24        wounds connected to her military service.                         In



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2         this group she felt the same increase in

3         depression and anxiety that Charmain has

4         reported.      She misses being around the other

5         women and longs for that sense of comradery she

6         felt during her outings.                She's struggling today

7         and like so many veterans in New York City she

8         feels completely overwhelmed.

9                     Without the social program like ours to

10        be part of Shelia feels her healing has been

11        damaged and that she no longer matters.                           The

12        Sierra Club Military Outdoors looks forward to

13        being able to restore our outings program with

14        veterans like Charmain and Shelia.                       We have

15        reimagined our work to mitigate the constraints

16        of COVID, but offering virtual outings, but those

17        in their own course offer a lot of barriers.

18        Challenging for reasons to include lack of equity

19        regarding parks and accessible public lands in

20        and around communities of color.                      And with the

21        average age of the military veteran being 65,

22        different barriers of technology that we see in

23        the older veteran population has prohibited them

24        from participating in our virtual work.                           Thank



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2         you again for allowing me time to testify.

3                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you and Kirby.

4         You got to unmute, Kirby.

5                    MR. KIRBY HANNAN, LEGISLATIVE ADVOCATE,

6         NEW YORK STATE VETERANS COUNCIL:                      Okay, can you

7         hear me?

8                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Yep.

9                    MR. HANNAN:           Alright, great.                  This

10        hearing is propitious beyond my wildest dreams

11        because as the legislative advocate for the New

12        York State Veterans Council and also the VFW,

13        I've been working closely with both organizations

14        on almost a weekly basis and from everything from

15        keeping the posts open to conditions under which

16        we might be able to open and all of the

17        challenges of social distancing.                      Having said all

18        of that, I know that you've all had five hours

19        now and you should be complimented and you've

20        probably memorized my testimony so I can go right

21        to the close, which occurred on the second page,

22        and basically say that we stand to lose 20%,

23        maybe 25% of the facilities and probably

24        permanently.        And I say that because Chair



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2         Barrett mentioned earlier that, you know, there's

3         a macro delivery system and a micro delivery

4         system and I'd like to look at the posts as the

5         micro delivery aspect of this.                    And if we, if we

6         lose the post there's probably 800 to 900 posts

7         in the state, American Legion and VFW, etc.,

8         about half of them may be have a facility.

9                    If you use that place, lose that place

10        of congregation then the micro delivery system is

11        gone so that all the rest of the, the legal aid,

12        the homelessness, the unemployment and all of the

13        agencies that we hear from so far, the posts

14        become their feeder mechanism, the vets like to

15        talk to vets, and so they don't want to go to get

16        help, not even to the VA sometimes unless there's

17        somebody at the post level that's reaching out

18        for them and encouraging them to find what they

19        need by way of help.

20                   So having said that I think that losing

21        the facilities in any percentage, but certainly

22        the threat that we have the, I'll speak to the 30

23        and maybe as much as 40% of federal benefit,

24        which is garnered by veteran service officers,



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2         that's on hold right now.                 I mean, no new clients

3         because it requires an in depth interview and

4         it's one that's best done person to person.                         I'll

5         use this hearing as an example.                     We'd all rather

6         have a hearing in person than we would to do it

7         this way I suspect, but nonetheless, you know,

8         the veteran service officers and you heard from

9         the Division of Veteran Services, the veteran

10        service officers are responsible for millions and

11        millions, probably conservatively $350 million of

12        federal benefits going to New York veterans.                         And

13        so be it, be it the VFW's veteran service officer

14        or the county veteran service officer, they're

15        absolutely instrumental in terms of keeping that

16        revenue flowing.

17                   So, you know, I think what we need to do

18        and I will close with this, is, you know, stand

19        firm if you can and it's not going to be easy, in

20        terms of the budget cuts because if, if, if we

21        lose this portion of this infrastructure the

22        ultimate bill on down the line and you've heard

23        this before, I know, but the ultimate bill down

24        the line is going to be huge because right now



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2         with all that self-funding, all that veteran to

3         veteran service that's happening at the post

4         level, if that goes away we're going to be

5         depending almost completely on all of the

6         agencies that are supported by the state.                              Every

7         one of them we love and respect, but we're going

8         to be depending on them completely and that bill

9         is going to be shocking.                  So that's my message

10        today.

11                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, thank you very

12        much.     So I'd like to open this up to some

13        questions.        I'd ask that, excuse me, Chair

14        Barrett, open the questioning session.                              Yeah,

15        there you go.

16                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

17        thank you, had to unmute myself.                        I thank all of

18        you for your testimony.                 I mean, the range of

19        expertise and perspectives on this panel was, was

20        particularly noteworthy.                  I want to zero in

21        because this has been issue of my own, you know,

22        legislatively on what Aaron and Eva had to say.

23        You know, I'm a huge proponent of

24        [unintelligible] [04:38:35] RX, you know, the



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2         therapeutic benefits of nature and we saw this

3         in, during this pandemic that what people did was

4         go out and take walks or turn to nature or

5         discover, you know, birds or biking or hiking or

6         things like that.           So I would really like

7         understand from and maybe Alex has some thoughts

8         on this, too, how can we do -- how we can break

9         down those barriers.             It seems like rather than

10        advancing these, you know, these concepts we've

11        kind of lost them in, in this, during the shut

12        period and, you know, whether it's, you know,

13        equine therapy or working with horses or, you

14        know, walks and hikes in state parks.                         So can you

15        talk about how we might do something to break

16        down these barriers at the, you know, at our

17        level at this point or, you know, in partnership

18        with, you know, you all.

19                   MR. LEONARD:            I would love to address

20        that, Assembly Member Barrett.                    Obviously, with,

21        if Outdoor RX is signed into law it will do, it

22        will go a long ways towards us being able to

23        better coordinate and synchronize across the

24        different state agencies, the parks, and the



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2         different organizations like mine that work in

3         the state.      But the barriers are many and some of

4         them I think you would find surprising.                           I know

5         that you and I have spoke about this at length,

6         but for those that were not in the room at the

7         time, barriers to accessing the natural world are

8         state parks and public spaces have a lot to do

9         with equity and not having access to

10        transportation is obvious, but less than obvious

11        is the lack of education or knowledge around

12        where to go, what to do, why they would even

13        participate in outdoor activities to begin with,

14        and what to do when they get there.                        These are

15        all barriers that can be addressed through

16        outdoor education that the state already provides

17        at some level just not in a coordinated way

18        targeting the most vulnerable or marginalized

19        population.

20                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

21        Eva, do you have some thoughts on this?

22                   MS. USADI:           Yes, thank you so much,

23        Didi, I do.       I mean, my first thought and I don't

24        mean to be, you know, I don't know what the right



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2         word is, but we need a vaccine and I mean,

3         clearly we have to have treatment available

4         that's going to allow people to be able to be

5         close enough even outside and feel safe about it,

6         and you know, an example is that the horse farm

7         that we work out of is still closed and they

8         don't know when they're going open.                        And really

9         they're closed for the right reason because they

10        recognize that if their staff gets sick they're

11        not going to be able to care for their animals.

12                   And so, you know, even if we wanted to

13        go there and do some things outside we don't have

14        access to that.          I know a lot of programs

15        throughout the state that use horses as we do,

16        are in the same boat.              So I think that all of

17        these are issues, transportation to get there,

18        people understanding why they should do things in

19        nature.    Last night we had a webinar on our

20        Native American Sweat Lodge ceremony and we had,

21        we were very well attended and it was a very good

22        conversation, but that is not something we can do

23        remotely, and people really need to be able to

24        have the experience and it's profoundly healing



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2         to be in that experience with a native healer,

3         and many of these things just can't be done

4         remotely.

5                     We're doing our best, you know, we can

6         do narrative medicine, we can do some other

7         things remotely, but we can't, you know,

8         facilitate people being outdoors through a Zoom

9         meeting, it's just not the same.

10                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                    This is so

11        tragic because these are -- obviously mental

12        health is such a huge issue and it's something

13        that's right there, it's the great outdoors is

14        and nature is just right there.                     So to feel like

15        we're constrained and don't have access to it

16        for, you know, for veterans and their families

17        just seems tragic.            Any other, anybody else?

18                    MR. BEHM:         Yes, Assemblywoman Barrett,

19        to echo the sentiment from earlier we actually

20        had a great partnership with an equine program we

21        set up in February.             We are getting ready for our

22        first class to start and then had to cancel it

23        because the facility shut down.                     We have tried to

24        adapt, in central New York we have some great



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2         local state and county parks so we've been

3         meeting veterans in a group maintaining social

4         distance and going on walks, taking the canines

5         out to do the same thing with veteran groups.

6         We've also been able to, once golf course

7         restrictions eased a little bit, we were able to

8         use some of our transportation resources to have

9         veterans meet at a golf course, again socially

10        distance and walk the course for some comradery.

11                    So we're trying to get unique, but with

12        the restrictions it has been tough to do what we

13        normally do.

14                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Right, okay.

15        Thank you all, thanks very much.                       Senator.

16                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Assemblywoman Hunter.

17        Are you good, okay.              Senator Ritchie.

18                    SENATOR RITCHIE:               Just thank you for

19        your testimony and I have no questions at this

20        time.

21                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, if there's any

22        other legislators that have questions if they can

23        turn on their video screen that would be great.

24                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     I think, I



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2         think Assembly Member Ashby has --

3                    SENATOR BROOKS:              No, yeah, no, that was

4         a lead so I could do him next so get a chance,

5         assemblyman, go ahead.

6                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Thank you.

7         Thanks Didi, and thank you chairman.                         It was a

8         great, great panel and Eva to your point, I found

9         it interesting over the last couple months and a

10        lot of friends of mine in the veteran community,

11        there's been almost an over population we've seen

12        of people on trails, at fishing access points and

13        it's almost become difficult to find access for

14        everybody and, you know, I know a lot of my

15        veteran friends out there have expressed kind of

16        the same thing because we go out into nature to

17        find that refuge and now it's, it's difficult to

18        find it and sometimes difficult to find parking

19        just to, just to go do it.                  And I'm wondering if

20        you guys in your experience are seeing veterans

21        have, you know, have those similar difficulties

22        and what are they, and what are they doing now

23        because of that, that's been effective?

24                   MS. USADI:           Are you asking me, Jake?



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2                      ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   The entire

3         panel.

4                      MS. USADI:           Yeah, well I, you know, I

5         think it's a great question.                     I can tell you from

6         our staff, our staff are all combat veterans, our

7         support staff, that they're really trying to do

8         things where they know they're not going to be

9         running into a lot of people because that's the

10        other thing.          You know, we don't want our

11        veterans to be isolated, but they also don't do

12        so well with civilians and especially crowds of

13        civilians.        So it's not helpful that people are

14        crowding to the few places that are open, a lot

15        of, you know, state parks and national parks are

16        still closed.          So my people are trying to find

17        places that they can go with a friend, you know,

18        one person who knows some remote area and they're

19        really trying to protect themselves in that way

20        even more so with these conditions.

21                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Thank you.

22                     CMSGT. LEIS:            If I may --

23                     MR. LEONARD:            I would add that it's

24        almost a like a, if, it feels like there's, that



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2         increase usage and things have gotten crowded,

3         but the reality is that the sheer size of the

4         population does not equate to most of them

5         getting outdoors because of their age.                              Because

6         the average age of the veteran is 65, many of the

7         200,000 vets in the city don't really know how to

8         get to these placed because they've grown up in

9         an urban environment where spending time outdoors

10        is not something that they were encouraged to do

11        or taught to do or that they feel comfortable

12        doing.     The need for outdoor education has

13        definitely not decreased just because we see more

14        people with access to cars and maybe some

15        experience in knowing how to get outside,

16        primarily white families in the State of New

17        York, having that opportunity is something

18        they've grown up with.

19                     When we look at the marginalized, the

20        under-represented veteran populations, especially

21        those in the urban environments in the cities, we

22        don't see an increase in their participating in

23        outdoor activities.               We see the same percentages,

24        which is almost 75% of the veterans that we say



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2         we surveyed in the Bronx still do not have access

3         to the natural world other than what they find on

4         the blocks that they live on.

5                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Thank you.

6                    CMSGT. LEIS:            I was just going to say,

7         through our agency in particular with the Joseph

8         Dwyer project, we've been able to put together a

9         few virtual run series.               Many of our younger

10        veterans who want to stay physically active, like

11        I said before the gyms were closed, we've been

12        able to put teams together and from a socially

13        distance perspective, go into state and local

14        parks to be able to do those runs and physically

15        see people from a distance, but that's been

16        helpful for them to get out, out in the outdoors

17        and the environment again and feel healthy.

18                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Okay, thank you

19        all.

20                   SENATOR BROOKS:              I'd just to like say,

21        I'm sorry, assembly member, are you done, I

22        apologize?

23                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   I am, Chairman,

24        thank you.



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2                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, you know, each of

3         you are kind of in a different situation all of

4         which is greatly driven by the virus and that is

5         that the norm is not there anymore.                        Where you're

6         working with group activities or outside

7         activities, we, the term, you know, the real

8         solution I guess is a vaccine at the end of the

9         day, but we've got such challenges and as we, as

10        we realize that there may well be another wave to

11        this virus, how are you going to change your

12        programs if that's, if that's going to be the

13        case and then to Kirby, we've talked about this a

14        lot, but the ability to save those facilities

15        that we have and fund them and it's become even

16        more challenging where they might have a rental

17        activity or something, opportunity rather,

18        they're not available.               So how much thought are

19        you giving to the next six or eight months if

20        there's, if you will a COVID-2 in terms of the

21        outbreak of this, we see a re-visitation, what

22        that, what is that going to do to your programs?

23                   MR. HANNON:           Well, I can speak for the

24        VFW and the 30 some odd organizations that belong



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2         to the New York State Veteran's Council and that

3         is that if they have a facility then the -- and

4         the facility can operate even on a part time

5         basis then they'll certainly pursue that.                         I

6         think that they'll also pursue other forms of

7         outreach and probably beef up the electronic

8         capability of the posts that remain financially

9         solvent.     The ones that don't remain financially

10        solvent, obviously senator, are going to go by

11        the wayside and I think the same is true even

12        though the county facilities house the veteran

13        service officers, the same would be true.                         I

14        think there's going to be a big augmentation of

15        electronic outreach, there's going to be training

16        type of challenge that is like never existed

17        before in terms of trying to conduct in person

18        interviews and the like so that we can continue

19        to get that stream of federal dollars for New

20        York State veterans for the things like COVID

21        deaths, which was discussed earlier.

22                   So I think our plans are evolving and

23        certainly we can probably use help with a lot of

24        that, but the bottom line, senator, I think is



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2         that we got to change the way we do business and

3         hopefully, we can do business in some fashion or

4         another.

5                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Anyone else?

6                    MS. USADI:           Yeah, from my perspective,

7         you know, there are aspects of our program we can

8         do remotely and we have considered, we're having

9         a meeting in a couple of days because we thought

10        about maybe this group that is registered for our

11        October program that we don't think we'll be able

12        to conduct that we could start meeting with them.

13        As a group we could do some group, you know, as a

14        trauma therapist I don't like to bring people

15        together and then actually not be able to treat

16        them because it's not very helpful.                        So we want

17        to be able to do some things that will be

18        therapeutic and that will really move people to a

19        different place in terms of their own, you know,

20        challenges from service.

21                   And so we're thinking very carefully

22        about what we could do.               One of the challenges we

23        have and I know I had a conversation with Ms.

24        Barrett about this a while go is that, you know,



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2         because of the restrictions about how people are

3         able to use their licenses.                  For example, we have

4         people coming, registered for our October program

5         who are from all over the country and some of

6         them are from under serviced areas, especially

7         the south and the southwest where they just don't

8         have access to good enough services; and so, of

9         course, we have some from New York as well.                         But

10        even if I wanted to do a group MDR session

11        because this can be done in a group and I'm

12        qualified to do it, I don't have permission to

13        treat a veteran from a different state where I'm

14        not licensed.

15                   So it's like every step along the way we

16        run into some kind of obstacle, which we're

17        trying to think through.                And it's also an issue

18        with TriCare who, you know, there's certain

19        sections of the country where when we have a

20        veteran coming from not TriCare East we actually,

21        you know, can't bill for that.                    We can't bill

22        anyway, yet.        So I think there are a number of

23        different levels of complications in terms of us

24        being able to do what we do best, but we are



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2         working, you know, creative response given the --

3         we don't think this is going to change any time

4         soon.    And the other thing that we're doing is

5         that this has given us a little bit of an

6         opportunity to kind of regroup because we're

7         still looking for property.                   We have property

8         that we're working on buying and so that during

9         this period when we're really slowed down we can

10        get ourselves positioned properly so that when

11        the pandemic lifts we will be able to really

12        increase our operational tempo.

13                    And that is something that we're working

14        very seriously on so that when things open up

15        we're not going to be doing a couple programs a

16        year, we're going to be doing a lot of programs

17        and so then we will hopefully be able to pull in

18        people that have been waiting not just for us but

19        for anything, you know, that could be helpful to

20        them.

21                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Any other comments?

22        Okay, we thank you all.

23                    MR. LEONARD:            Yeah, oh I'm sorry,

24        senator, I was going to add one --



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2                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Oh, go ahead.

3                    MR. LEONARD:            Which I think is relevant

4         for this conversation.               The strategy that we put

5         in place over a year ago was to support the

6         passage of Outdoor RX that Assemblywoman Barrett

7         sponsored to the assembly, and then Senator

8         Benjamin in the senate and since that's passed

9         and its waiting for it to be signed into law, of

10        course, and then the pandemic hit all about the

11        same time.      So our strategy has not changed

12        because passing that bill allows us to take our

13        work to a different level regardless of how we

14        deliver it, the bill would allow us to improve

15        the ability for us to coordinate outdoor

16        education, especially amongst communities who

17        aren't currently receiving them.

18                   There are all different avenues that we

19        can reach into these communities.                       That bill is

20        going to let us study the different ways the

21        state and other organizations can work better

22        together to teach people and themselves how to

23        get out and enjoy our states parks and public

24        lands, and not rely on organizations like mine to



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2         come in and personally take them out on trips.

3         Because what do we touch a year in New York, 500

4         people out of 800,000 veterans, that's an

5         insignificant number of the population.                           So for

6         us to have a positive, but real effect on the

7         population we absolutely want to still see that

8         bill signed so that can working on solutions with

9         the DVS.

10                   We're not changing our strategy so even

11        though we're not leading trips any more, we're

12        just switching to a virtual form of outdoor

13        education and trying to teach folks how to get

14        out there on their own to enjoy the benefits that

15        like our women's veterans group has enjoyed, but

16        to do that on a large scale we have to have help,

17        we can't do that by ourselves.

18                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, well, we thank

19        you all very much for what you do and the time

20        you've given us today and collectively we'll all

21        continue to work to make the lives of our

22        veterans better.           So we thank you very, very

23        much, and if we can bring in the participants of

24        our final panel that would be great.                         Thank you



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2         again.

3                      ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you all

4         very much, be well.

5                      MS. USADI:           Thank you.

6                      MR. LEONARD:            Thank you.

7                      SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, we got everybody?

8                      MALE STAFF:           All present.

9                      SENATOR BROOKS:              All present and

10        accounted for.           Good afternoon, we welcome you to

11        our veterans' hearings associated with the, the

12        virus.     We've had an opportunity to hear from a

13        number of panels, you're actually the final panel

14        of the day.         I want to give each of our chairs

15        and ranking members an opportunity to provide you

16        with some opening remarks and then we'll move

17        forward the program.               So if Chair, Chair Barrett,

18        I'm losing my voice here, would give us some

19        opening remarks that would be great.

20                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Sure, thank

21        you, Senator.          I guess it must be time to wrap

22        this up because you're losing your voice.                           But I

23        just want to thank you very much for

24        participating.           I, this is has been a very strong



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2         series of panels and I'm sure that that, that you

3         will continue that trend and we look forward to

4         hearing what you have to say and thank you for

5         making the time to be here.

6                      SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, Chair Hunter?

7                      ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Good afternoon,

8         I know they were saving the best for last so I

9         know you're going to bring it home on this last

10        panel.     Hopefully, you all had had an opportunity

11        to hear the testimony from others so definitely

12        interested in seeing either or hearing maybe

13        something new or something different that maybe

14        some of the others maybe had forgotten to mention

15        or some areas that there are gaps and

16        reinforcing, obviously, some of the things that

17        have been said, especially you folks who are

18        working the legal services area.                        I know that

19        funds are very, very tight and you are our first

20        defense in helping those who don't have many

21        resources and you're basically our last

22        opportunity for help.                So definitely looking

23        forward to hearing from you, thank you.

24                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, Assemblyman



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2         Ashby.

3                      ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Thank you,

4         Chairman.        I want to thank this panel for hanging

5         in there for the last bit of it, grateful that

6         you're here and I look forward to hearing your

7         testimony.

8                      SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay and Senator

9         Ritchie.

10                     SENATOR RITCHIE:               I'd just like to add

11        the same sentiment.               Thank you for staying with

12        us all day, we appreciate your time and I look

13        forward to hearing from all of you.

14                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, so what we're

15        going to ask is each of you give a five

16        presentation, and then we'll go through a series

17        of questions.          We truly appreciate you're being

18        here and, you know, you're the end of the line,

19        but as said we save the best to last.                           So there

20        have been a problems expressed today.                           We are the

21        assumption you're going to provide solutions to

22        each of them within your five minute

23        presentation, but we welcome to hear what you

24        have to say.          So Meghan if we could start with



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2         you.

3                    MS. MEGHAN BROOKS, STAFF ATTORNEY, NEW

4         YORK LEGAL ASSISTANCE GROUP:                   Certainly, Chair

5         Brooks, Chair Barrett, Chair Hunter, committee

6         and staff, good afternoon and thank you for the

7         opportunity to join you here today.                        My name is

8         Meghan Brooks, I'm an attorney with the Veterans

9         Practice of the New York Legal Assistance Group,

10        which is a nonprofit law office dedicated to

11        providing free legal service and civil matters to

12        low income New Yorkers.               And I [unintelligible]

13        [05:00:19] Legal Health Veterans Initiative

14        operates legal clinics in the Bronx, Manhattan

15        and the North Port VA Medical Centers and it

16        includes the nation's first legal clinic focused

17        entirely on women veterans.

18                   Meanwhile our veterans practice is a

19        community-based program, it provides

20        comprehensive services to veterans and their

21        families regardless of their discharge status and

22        eligibility to use the VA healthcare system.

23        Across our practices we've certainly seen COVID-

24        19 bring new challenges, but more so the pandemic



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2         has compounded the already serious economic and

3         mental health challenges that New York's 800,000

4         veterans already faced.               I actually would like to

5         recognize that just an hour ago I learned that a

6         client of mine died likely by suicide yesterday.

7                    Simple fact is that veterans mental

8         health challenges are exacerbated by the stress

9         of poverty.       New York veterans have a lower

10        educational attainments and a lower income of the

11        national average.           Only 17% of New York veterans

12        receive disability benefits.                   It's significant

13        lower than the national average of about 24%.

14        This gap suggests that more than 50,000 New York

15        veteran families lose tons of millions of federal

16        benefits dollars and accompanying healthcare

17        benefits every year.             These benefits are needed

18        now more than ever yet even in good times 88% of

19        low income veterans report receiving inadequate

20        or no professional legal help for their civil

21        legal problems.          NYLAG seeks to close that gap

22        despite ongoing resource constrictions and we

23        continue to do so during the pandemic.                            When the

24        pandemic hit we demanded that VA quickly issue



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2         COVID responsive policies nationwide and we won.

3         On the ground we established a COVID-19 legal

4         resource hotline.           Through the hotline we have

5         assisted more than 1500 individuals and their

6         families to date, including many veterans.

7                    The three biggest issues we've been

8         seeing relate to housing, employment and of

9         course, benefits.           On the housing front shelters

10        have experienced a veterans surge during the

11        pandemic with estimates that nearly 25% of New

12        York City renters are not current on rent, much

13        of the burden of preventing veteran homelessness

14        will fall on legal services.                   I understand that

15        as of today the courts have extended the eviction

16        moratorium through October 1st, but we know this

17        pandemic will last far longer than that and

18        temporary measures do not stem my client's

19        housing anxieties.            Regarding employment an

20        estimated 14% of all veterans employed before the

21        pandemic have since lost work and since veterans

22        begin their careers later and because their

23        military background does not always translate to

24        the civilian workforce, it takes them longer to



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2         find new employment.              Veterans will need legal

3         advocates to help them navigate the unemployment

4         system and to access VA educational, job training

5         or monetary benefits until they can get back to

6         work.

7                     As always assistance with VA benefits

8         and healthcare access remains a prominent unmet

9         need.    In fact, a lot of the income and

10        healthcare related issues that we see tend to be

11        at the root of the other legal issues our

12        veterans are encountering.                   Veterans who have

13        been improperly denied critical benefits need

14        attorneys who are well versed in the complexities

15        of the appeals process to help them put together

16        well documented claims that will result in

17        receiving the benefits they've earned.

18                    And so there are two main ways we would

19        encourage New York State to respond.                          First, New

20        York should expand its transformational

21        Disability Advocacy Program or DAP, which funds

22        legal services to fight social security denials

23        to veteran's benefits.                Just as DAP actually

24        generates revenue for New York by bringing in



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2         federal Social Security dollars, a veterans DAP

3         would help bring New York veterans VA benefits

4         access to the national average.                      Similarly,

5         bringing federal dollars to New York and more

6         importantly delivering benefits and healthcare to

7         New York veterans and families when they need it

8         most.

9                     Second, this body should pass bill

10        #A10093, which would provide a civil right to

11        counsel for veterans at or below 400% of the

12        federal poverty line who are facing common state

13        law issues.        These are issues that push veteran

14        families further into poverty if unresolved.                          And

15        broadly speaking the issues are foreclosure and

16        eviction proceedings, public benefits hearings,

17        wage theft cases and child support proceedings.

18        As New York works to recover from the impact of

19        COVID-19 civil legal services will continue to be

20        critical and state support for these services

21        will help veterans get back on their feet.                          Thank

22        you and I'd be happy to answer any questions.

23                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you, Logan.

24                    MR. LOGAN CAMPBELL, PROJECT COORDINATOR,



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2         CITY BAR JUSTICE CENTER'S VETERANS ASSISTANCE

3         PROJECT:     Good afternoon, everyone, thank you so

4         much for having me here and Meghan, I'm very

5         sorry to hear of the loss of your client.                         I'm

6         Logan Campbell, I'm the project coordinator of

7         the City Bar Justice Center's Veterans Assistance

8         Project, also known as VAP.                  VAP helps low income

9         disabled veterans in New York City by providing

10        pro bono legal assistance on issues related to

11        their claims for benefits from the VA.

12                   In fiscal year 2020, we helped our

13        clients obtain over $850,000 in [unintelligible]

14        [05:05:27] benefits and nearly $20,000 in monthly

15        recurring benefits.             I've served in this role for

16        over two years and I'm the first point of contact

17        for all veterans seeking assistance from VAP.

18        I'm testifying here today as representative of

19        the City Bar Justice Center, I'm honored to

20        highlight parts of the City Bar Justice Center

21        longer in testimony.

22                   The most prevalent and concerning trend

23        of the City Bar Justice Center has noticed among

24        New York City's low income veteran population, is



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2         the sheer volume of issues they are facing.                         We

3         have spoken with too many veterans who have lost

4         their jobs or have had to drop out of school.

5         Too many veterans concerned about whether they

6         will have housing next month, who have suddenly

7         been tasked with serving as caretakers for their

8         elderly and ailing family members.                       All this in

9         addition to managing the service connected

10        disabilities from which they suffer.

11                    Given the genuine impressing crises

12        these veterans are facing, it should no surprise

13        that some are opting not to pursue VA benefits

14        claims at this time.             VAP has seen multiple

15        potential clients decide not to proceed with

16        receiving assistance under VA benefit claim

17        because they do not presently have the time to

18        devote to it.        It is well known among the

19        veterans community how absurdly long the process

20        can take.      Many veterans do not have the time to

21        navigate such a process as the need they are

22        facing are immediate.              What good are retroactive

23        benefits to someone who needs the money to deal

24        with the issues in the present?                     Veterans fear



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2         they won't get to use benefits for years or even

3         in their lifetime.              Unfortunately, this fear is

4         not unfounded as VAP has already lost one client

5         to COVID while they were in the middle of their

6         claims process.

7                      However, for each veteran who decides

8         not to pursue a claim with VAP there are at least

9         as many if not more seeking VA benefits because

10        it offers a stable income source in these

11        tumultuous times.             The demand for our services is

12        currently so high that we have had to close our

13        intake line for the second time in the last two

14        years.     The causes of this urgent demand beyond

15        VAP's capacity we believe are two-fold.                             The

16        first being the need for a steady source of

17        income these benefits provide.                      The second is

18        then an already arduous process has only become

19        more onerous on our clients.                     Though, the VA has

20        shifted to a remote work model in a relatively

21        successful manner there is still increased

22        obstacles for our veterans such as an indefinite

23        delay to many compensation and pension exams,

24        which the VA requires a significant amount of



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2         veterans undergo before adjudicating their claim.

3         Even outside the VA this process has become more

4         difficult for our clients.

5                    Many of our clients have limited access

6         to the internet or in some other manner lack the

7         necessary resources to sign documents digitally.

8         With the extra steps our office now has taken to

9         send -- now has to take to send and receive mail

10        coupled with the ailments of an embattled post

11        office, our clients are experiencing even greater

12        delays.    This is just one example of the many

13        logistical obstacles that have arisen.                            Our

14        office is actively working to mitigate delays and

15        avoid these obstacles.               For instance, we have

16        completely shifted our entire pro bono model,

17        which used to rely on an initial in person

18        meeting between the client and their attorneys to

19        a complete remote model.                We have started

20        obtaining most of our clients records using the

21        VA's online database, developed retainers that

22        can be texted to clients and signed using

23        Smartphones and found a host of new ways to

24        communicate with clients while remote.                            However,



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2         despite all this some delays are still

3         inevitable.

4                      The City Bar Justice Center's Veterans

5         Assistance Project is doing our best to overcome

6         these obstacles and answer the surge in demand,

7         but given our current staffing and funding levels

8         we cannot increase our capacity to match.                           As

9         this pandemic continues to proof unpredictable,

10        veterans will continue to seek stable sources of

11        income such as VA benefits.                    Unfortunately, these

12        benefits are only becoming more challenging to

13        obtain and veterans will increasingly need

14        assistance to get them.                 We hope that when they

15        do the state ensures there are enough resources

16        available to them.              Thank you for your time and

17        attention today.             I'm happy to answer any

18        questions you may have.

19                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you very much,

20        Peter.

21                     MR. PETER KEMPNER, LEGAL DIRECTOR &

22        ELDERLY PROJECT DIRECTOR, VOLUNTEERS OF LEGAL

23        SERVICE:       Thank you, good afternoon.                      My name is

24        Peter Kempner and I'm the legal director of



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2         Volunteers of Legal of Service, also known as

3         VOLS.    VOLS was established in 1984 and our

4         purpose is to leverage private attorneys to

5         provide free legal services to low income New

6         Yorkers to help fill the justice gap.                          I'm also a

7         member of the veterans committee at the Statewide

8         New York Legal Services Coalition.                        The coalition

9         consists of 50 legal services providers who

10        collectively serve every single county in New

11        York State.        My testimony today is on behalf both

12        of VOLS and of the coalition.

13                    In addition to my duties as director of

14        Volunteers of Legal Service I founded and

15        supervise the VOLS veterans initiative.                            I also

16        created and teach the Veteran's Justice Clinic at

17        New York Law school.              I sit on the New York City

18        Bar Association's Committee on Military and

19        Veteran's Affairs.             I'm a member of the New York

20        State Bar Association's Veteran's Committee and I

21        co-chair the New York City Legal Services working

22        group and I've held many past positions focused

23        on the civil, legal needs of low income veterans

24        in New York State.



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2                    We thank the committee for, the

3         committees for holding this critical hearing to

4         examine the impact of COVID-19 on New York's

5         veterans and my testimony today will focus on two

6         legal issues faced by New York's veterans in the

7         wake of COVID-19 crisis and how it is more

8         important than ever to ensure that veterans have

9         access to free legal services in order to fend

10        off potential devastation.                  Those two issues are

11        eviction and homelessness prevention and the

12        other one is planning for the future and end of

13        life planning.         Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak,

14        the VOLS veterans initiative conducted weekly

15        legal clinics at the Manhattan campus of the VA

16        Hospital where we provided free civil legal

17        services to low income veterans age 60 and over.

18                   After the crisis shut down the VA

19        Hospital to outside visitors, we shifted our

20        services online and launched a legal hotline for

21        low income elderly veterans to reach us.                          The

22        number one legal issue that is faced by the

23        veterans we serve is eviction and homelessness

24        prevention.       Over the past decade New York State



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2         alongside the legal services community, county of

3         veterans services agencies, veterans service

4         organizations, the VA and other community

5         partners have made tremendous strides in

6         addressing veteran homelessness using a

7         combination of federally funded programs like

8         SSVF, HUD BASH Section 8, Ransom Per Dium in

9         combination with local programs like the

10        Universal Access to Counsel Program in New York

11        City, New York has cut its veteran homeless

12        population significantly.

13                   But the COVID-19 crisis has the

14        potential to undo much of the progress which we

15        have made and return us to the days where veteran

16        homelessness was much more prominent and

17        widespread.       It's estimated that tens of

18        thousands of New Yorkers may face homelessness

19        when the current moratoriums on eviction filings

20        and eviction executions are lifted.                        Undoubtedly,

21        there are scores of veterans among those facing

22        homelessness, and many of these veterans are the

23        most vulnerable.           They have mental health issues,

24        substance abuse issues, they were formerly



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2         homeless and if evicted making these veterans

3         will end up in shelters and on the streets.

4                     To prevent his backslide, we have to do

5         everything we can to prevent the eviction of

6         veterans and accessing free legal services has

7         proven to be a critical tool to prevent this from

8         happening.      It's also essential that veterans who

9         are most vulnerable to poor health problems if

10        infected with COVID-19 can engage in proper life

11        planning.      A core part of our work is to provide

12        free wills and advanced directives to low income

13        senior veterans.           These critical documents ensure

14        that the wishes of senior veterans are clear and

15        carried out by the people that they love and they

16        trust the most.          Veterans infected with COVID-19

17        may find themselves in a medically induced coma

18        and on a ventilator for weeks or months.                          During

19        this time, rent will go unpaid, bills will pile

20        up and in the case of long term and

21        incapacitation loved ones may have to file costly

22        and unpleasant legal proceedings such as

23        guardianship.

24                    A veteran who has the ability to put a



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2         proper plan in place by completing a power of

3         attorney, a healthcare proxy and other advanced

4         directives can ensure that the negative

5         consequences of an incapacity are minimized or

6         even avoided by empowering their loved ones with

7         the proper tools to handle their affairs while

8         they battle the virus, they could focus on

9         healing instead of worrying about whether or not

10        they'll have a home to return to when they're

11        released from the hospital.                  The common thread

12        that brings these things together as I think

13        you've heard repeatedly over the course of the

14        day is how access to free civil legal services

15        counsel is transformative for veterans.                           If

16        needed, eviction prevention, life planning,

17        access in critical government benefits and on so

18        many other fronts having access to free civil

19        legal services helps abate the negative impact of

20        COVID-19 on New York's veteran community.                              Thank

21        you for allowing us to submit this testimony and

22        for holding this hearing and I'm happy to answer

23        any questions that you have.

24                   SENATOR BROOKS:              Thank you.           So we'll



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2         begin our questioning with Chair Barrett.

3                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

4         Senator.     Thank you, all three of you, first of

5         all Meghan, my condolences on the loss of the

6         client, that's got to be --

7                    MS. BROOKS:           Thank you.

8                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     -- a pretty

9         traumatic experience, somebody that you've been

10        working that closely with.                  And thank you all,

11        and clearly you're all very passionate about the

12        work that you do and it's obviously really

13        important work and I feel like I'm already

14        depleted in a day of asking of questions to come

15        up with some new things to ask, but I do want to

16        sort of touch base with Peter.                    The, what I heard

17        from you that was particularly new today was

18        about the end of life planning and you know, kind

19        of like Pattie, I lost my mother in the last few

20        weeks and so it's kind of fresh in my mind to

21        deal with, you know, how all of the complexities

22        involved in, you know, in that.                     Were these

23        experiences that you specifically had during

24        COVID with clients or is, is your, you know, vast



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2         knowledge and expertise kind of anticipating that

3         these are, you know, these are situations that

4         that veterans need to be prepared for and, you

5         know, and others in a crisis like this.

6                      MR. KEMPNER:            So our organization has

7         had a practice focused around life planning for

8         over two decades.             We had started it in our

9         elderly project and just created it in our

10        veterans initiative about two years ago to extend

11        those services in a focused way on veterans and

12        doing outreach at the VA Hospital and other

13        VSO's.     During the crisis, we actually also

14        launched a COVID-19 frontline in healthcare

15        workers initiative to provide free life planning

16        documents to people who are working on the

17        frontlines during the COVID-10 crisis, both in

18        hospitals and other healthcare settings, home

19        care workers and the like.                    So this issue is

20        something that has been important to our

21        organization for a long, long time, but it really

22        brings it into stark relief now about why this is

23        so important when we see folks who are unable to

24        get to their loved ones in the nursing homes.                           To



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2         see people who will become incapacitated and

3         their loved ones don't have the tools that they

4         need to deal with the banks and deal with their

5         landlords and deal with government agencies in

6         order to access Medicare and Medicaid and VA

7         benefits and whatever it is.

8                    And so for us it just reinforces why

9         this practice is so important and you see so much

10        in the free legal service world, no choice but to

11        be defensive, right.             So much of the practice is

12        around representing tenants who are facing

13        eviction, but this practice is something that's a

14        little more proactive, to have people plan for

15        the future.       We want them to have the right tools

16        in place and hope they never have to use them,

17        but sometimes they do.

18                   MS. BROOKS:           And I would just like to

19        second that at NYLAG we're also seeing a huge

20        uptick in advanced planning needs and like Peter

21        said you can be offensive in a lot of these,

22        offensive in a lot of these circumstances, but

23        unfortunately, COVID has put us on the defense on

24        a lot of situations as well and there have been



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2         several instances where unfortunately, a client

3         had COVID and we just weren't able to get there

4         in time due to various technologies and things

5         like that.

6                    MR. KEMPNER:            Right and this echoes back

7         to some of the conversations from earlier with

8         broadband access and access to technology

9         particularly for older veterans who aren't tech

10        savvy and don't have that access that some of the

11        other ones do.         Thank goodness the governor had

12        issued multiple executive orders allowing for

13        remote notarization, remote witnessing of these

14        documents and recently both houses of the state

15        legislature passed the bill that will simplify

16        their power of attorney law and hopefully,

17        Governor Cuomo will sign that bill.                        But we want

18        to make these things as accessible as possible.

19        Technology is important, making the process

20        simple is important, but there are those barriers

21        that are still there especially when we can't

22        meet our clients in person.                  We would often do

23        hospital visits and home visits, we can't do

24        those right now.



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2                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thank you,

3         thank you all very much.

4                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Chair Hunter.

5                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER HUNTER:                    Yes, thank you

6         and again I want to extend my condolences, you

7         know.    I've had opportunity at my own American

8         Legion Post that, you know, there's a couple

9         folks that we watch very, very closely because of

10        PTSD and during this time, you know, as we

11        instituted a buddy check program, you know, is to

12        make sure that we are really trying to keep an

13        eye, but you know, it's very difficult.

14        Resources are slim and, you know, we have our own

15        families in some ways to take care of and

16        obviously, these are your clients and it's just

17        ever more important it seems that we do have to

18        be proactive and I'm just wondering, you know, if

19        there's any way, you know, again, I know it

20        always comes to resources throughout, you know,

21        all of the work that you all are doing, if

22        there's any way to even be more proactive.                          I

23        know, Pete, you were saying about advanced

24        planning, you've been that for 20 years, but it



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2         seems to me, you know, there has been a run to,

3         you know, making sure people's, you know, wills

4         are in place and things are in order.

5                    The folks that are most indigent and who

6         need the most need, I know I need my eviction

7         notice taken care of right now, but it's being

8         able to have a calm conversation about and what

9         about all of these other things, because when you

10        get to the hospital during a high peak of COVID

11        time and the person presents at the door, that

12        could be the last time you see that person.

13        You're not allowed inside, you can't and you

14        know, you're talking with them by the phone and

15        it just seems to me we're talking about veterans

16        now.   If we know who they are and I know that's

17        been a huge concern with the agency, not knowing

18        who the veterans are, but at least with this

19        small population if we could get to them and kind

20        of assist them, especially the ones who need help

21        in advance, it seems like some of the things that

22        you all are going through right now definitely

23        could be, you know, minimized for the next wave

24        of COVID or for the next, you know, pandemic or



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2         for the next whatever happens going forward.

3                    It just seems having these conversations

4         all today we've definitely seen gaps, but it's

5         incumbent upon many of your legal service

6         organizations to, you know, to be their front

7         facing for all of these veterans.                       So, you know,

8         that's not necessarily a question unless you all

9         had a comment on that, but it seems to me if

10        there's any way that we could be more proactive

11        knowing that this is going to, you know, keep

12        continuing your agencies are at the frontlines to

13        be able to do that.

14                   MS. BROOKS:           Absolutely, I would agree

15        with that and I would just add that when it comes

16        to being proactive some of the most difficult

17        things to do are identifying what someone is

18        eligible for.        We often see in legal services

19        especially for folks who aren't veteran providers

20        specifically, people just aren't issue spotting

21        for the types of things that could be available

22        not only to veterans, but to veterans spouses,

23        veteran survivors, things like pensions, things

24        like dependency and indemnity compensation,



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2         things like HUD BASH vouchers like Pete

3         mentioned.      It's really about issue spotting,

4         which its why it's very important to get someone

5         who's well trained in veterans issues and

6         familiar with what's going on to take a look at

7         clients coming through the door to see what else

8         can be done to help that person reach stability

9         economically with regards to their health, the

10        list goes on.

11                    MR. KEMPNER:           And I'll add to that.             I

12        think that education piece is critically

13        important for all legal service providers to be

14        thinking about what is unique about serving

15        veterans.      One of the things that I have always

16        pushed is making sure that legal service

17        providers and frankly, and other organizations

18        are screening for military service when they're

19        intakes with clients.              And so you have to ask the

20        question to know whether or not the person that

21        you're working with has served in the military,

22        and you also have to know how to ask that

23        question.      I know that that folks have said

24        earlier today and I think Benjamin actually said



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2         it, was that some of these people won't say I'm a

3         veteran, but if you ask in a manner that says,

4         have you served in the military, they might say

5         yes to that, but they won't say yes to being a

6         veteran because of their discharge status,

7         because of when they served.                   And so it's

8         important to educate around that.

9                    We're actually doing a program in

10        conjunction with Fordham Law School in a couple

11        of weeks to train housing attorneys statewide in

12        veteran and military cultural competency.                         So to

13        teach them to ask the questions, teach them why

14        it's important.          I know in my practice through

15        the years, you know, finding out that somebody

16        had served was the key to solving the problem.

17        I've had clients who said to me well, I can't

18        afford the rent and I learn that they're veteran

19        and I'm able to get them on VA pension or some

20        other benefit and then they are able to stay in

21        their home.       And I know this has been hinted at

22        before, and Meghan said it in different words,

23        but I always say that the problems of low income

24        people are an interconnected web.                       When somebody



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2         presents to you with a housing problem, it's

3         often a benefits problem.                 If somebody presents

4         to you with a benefits problems, it's often a

5         family law problem because of child support like

6         Dao Sun had said earlier today.

7                     And so to have that holistic view and to

8         make sure that everybody is screening for

9         military service will allow us to serve the

10        veteran community better.

11                    SENATOR BROOKS:             Ranking member Ashby.

12                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                  Thank you, Mr.

13        Chairman.      Thank you to the panel, it was great,

14        great testimony.           Ms. Brooks, I'm very sorry to

15        hear of the loss of your client.

16                    MS. BROOKS:          Thank you.

17                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                  I really

18        appreciate you being here and taking the time to

19        do this despite, despite that loss.                        I imagine

20        this is the reason why, this is the reason why

21        you're doing it and thank you for that.                           Earlier

22        in your testimony you talked about only 17% of

23        our state's veterans receiving federal benefits.

24        I'm curious just to know where you got that



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2         figure from.

3                    MS. BROOKS:           Sure, it's from a legal

4         services corporation survey that was conducted a

5         couple years ago.

6                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Okay.

7                    MS. BROOKS:           I believe it's cited to in

8         my written testimony.

9                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Okay --

10                   MR. KEMPNER:            It was actually, it was

11        actually by the New York City Bar Association who

12        conducted that survey.

13                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Okay.

14                   MR. KEMPNER:            Logan's organization was a

15        partner to Logan's organization.

16                   MS. BROOKS:           Apologies, Logan.

17        [unintelligible] [05:25:48] written.

18                   MR. KEMPNER:            It's a May 2018 study that

19        the New York City Bar Association published.

20                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Okay, well, I'm

21        really, really grateful for that figure and it's

22        very, it's very concerning; very concerning that

23        still over half a million of our, well over half

24        a million, over 600,000 veterans would not be



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2         receiving federal benefits that they need and I'm

3         wondering what we could do a better of in terms

4         of screening and augmenting the Division of

5         Veterans Services and their capability to

6         identify veterans of, you know, I think the

7         Department of Transportation and, you know, let's

8         say they were a fraction of the agency that they

9         were, would they be as efficient as they are in

10        maintaining our roads, making sure that people

11        have driver's licenses and implementing all those

12        things.    The elevation of the Division of

13        Veterans Services to a full state agency, which

14        would make them more eligible for a lot of the

15        federal funding then I would imagine many states

16        are receiving now could have an impact on this

17        number.    You, what are your thoughts on that?

18                   MS. BROOKS:           Certainly, that would make

19        a lot of sense.          I would also note like you had

20        mentioned earlier, one of the barriers that we

21        see so often is folks not identifying as veterans

22        because they received a "bad paper discharge."

23        So one thing that could really be focused on is

24        reaching out to those veterans the screening



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2         question should be did you ever serve in the U.S.

3         military.      And also funding, discharge upgrade

4         and similar work, again, thanks to Chair Barrett

5         for her incredible work on the Restoration of

6         Honor Act, that's something that we'll be

7         focusing on and NYLAG as well actually the

8         clients interested in the vendor's license in the

9         city that could help out with.                    And so it's sort

10        of reaching these populations that haven't

11        historically been reached that I think could help

12        bring those numbers up quite a bit, in addition

13        to other more [unintelligible] [05:27:46]

14                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                  Thanks for your

15        response and input.

16                    MR. KEMPNER:           And can I also echo

17        something that Meghan had pointed out earlier and

18        there is a program in New York State already the

19        DAP program, the Disability Advocacy Program for

20        Social Security Benefits.                 New York has

21        recognized that having counsel in these hearings

22        for federal benefits is an incredibly smart

23        investment.       You spend a little money to provide

24        representation and then you get somebody benefits



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2         for a lifetime, and its trickle up economics

3         where people who are low income immediately take

4         that money and they spend it on rent, they spend

5         it at a local grocery store and they spend it on

6         other goods and services in the local economy,

7         which then creates tax revenue for New York

8         State.     And so these, these programs pay for

9         themselves and also any veteran who is on state

10        benefits, public assistance benefits, or other

11        state or local funded programs, once they get on

12        VA benefits like the work that Logan does, then

13        they come of off those state benefits and so we

14        have less veterans on our local welfare rolls and

15        less money coming out of local coffers and more

16        federal money in the local economy.

17                     MS. BROOKS:           Absolutely.

18                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Go ahead, Logan.

19                     MR. CAMPBELL:             Could I just add a bit to

20        that?     I just want to dive a little bit deeper in

21        the numbers to show just how far behind that 17%

22        puts New York State and this is all coming from

23        the City Bar report that Pete mentioned.                            We're

24        at 17%, the national average fluctuates 23 to 24%



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2         of veterans receiving these benefits, whereas you

3         have large states like Texas and California

4         receiving 29 and 25% respectively.                       So the

5         investments Meghan and Pete are talking about

6         there's a lot of room for New York to improve in.

7         There's a lot of benefits to give our veterans.

8                     ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                  I'm wondering in

9         that study that you all had cited earlier, the

10        generational makeup of it, so are you finding

11        that post-911 or I'm sorry, OIF, OEF veterans are

12        more likely to be receiving benefits versus Gulf

13        War, Vietnam era, Korea and World War II

14        veterans?

15                    MR. CAMPBELL:            That was one of the

16        things we were more concerned about.                         I think a

17        lot of people have referenced how New York has a

18        relatively older veteran population --

19                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                  Right.

20                    MR. CAMPBELL:            -- which our intuition

21        was they're older, they're more likely to have

22        disabilities and their disabilities are more

23        likely have become severe.                  So we expected that

24        those veterans should be getting those benefits



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2         whereas they're just for some reason not.                         So I

3         don't want to give a definitive answer to yours

4         just because I haven't parsed that out of the

5         data specifically, but it's definitely a very

6         concerning trend.

7                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER ASHBY:                   Appreciate it,

8         thank you.

9                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Okay, if there are any

10        members on that have a question if they could

11        turn on their video, that would be great.                         Ranker

12        Ritchie.

13                   SENATOR RITCHIE:               I would just like to

14        say to Meghan, I'm sorry for your loss too and I

15        certainly appreciate your compassion for those

16        that you represent along with the other two

17        panelists.      It's certainly, it's certainly comes

18        across.    I know that I have been, I think

19        astonished, shocked, I don't know what else to

20        say about the number of veterans that keeps

21        coming across that have not applied for any

22        services that are struggling.                    And, you know, I'm

23        trying to think what I can do just in my own

24        little world up here on my end to try to



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2         advocate, try to get information out.                           Any kind

3         of correspondence to the people that I represent

4         in my district to make sure that they know that

5         they can check because the 30% number is just so

6         hard, hard to fathom that there's that many

7         people out there who could be receiving benefits

8         especially now in such trying times and they've

9         not applied for anything or they don't know how

10        to apply or it's too complicated.                         And I'd just

11        ask in closing is there anything that you think

12        locally because I think you, I'm, my part of the

13        state is probably quite a ways away from where

14        most of the people you're taking care of or

15        trying to help are, what can we do state wise to

16        try to raise the level of awareness of what might

17        be out there and the people who are falling

18        through the cracks?

19                     MS. BROOKS:           Thank you, you represent

20        Fort Drum area, is that right?

21                     SENATOR RITCHIE:               Yes.

22                     MS. BROOKS:           I actually, I have spent

23        4th and 5th grade up at Fort Drum, it's a great

24        place.     But I will say that and just on that note



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2         we are seeing a surprising number of recently

3         separated service members.                  So folks who've just

4         gotten out of the military, who for some reason

5         and DOD is supposed to be doing this, but for

6         some reason their service benefit applications

7         aren't getting in or they're just not being

8         hooked up to the benefits they need to be hooked

9         up with.     So even in your district like if

10        there's a large military installation there and

11        being many other districts in the state where

12        there are military installations, those sorts of

13        localized, I think, I think [unintelligible]

14        [05:33:24] could be very useful in addition to

15        any other sort of broad statewide efforts.

16                   SENATOR RITCHIE:               Thank you.

17                   MR. KEMPNER:            And I know there was a

18        discussion earlier about discharge and, and what

19        kind of information folks are given and how, what

20        DOD does is frankly just insufficient and so I

21        think much of it should be coming from the

22        federal government, where they should make sure

23        that veterans are connected to, to not only the

24        VA, but also local veteran services organizations



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2         that they're given information going forward and,

3         and maybe even turn that information over to the

4         state DVS and local DVS's in order for them to

5         have the list so they could follow up with them.

6                    SENATOR RITCHIE:               Thank you.              Thank you

7         all for your time.

8                    SENATOR BROOKS:              First, Meghan, let me

9         join with everyone else and our condolences for

10        your loss.      And let me say to all of you you're

11        sincerity and your commitment to what you're

12        doing was very, very clear.                  Meghan, when you

13        told us the situation you could see, see it in

14        your eyes, you could see it in your face.                            We

15        have work to do, there's no question about that.

16        The virus itself has made, if you will, their

17        lives much more complicated and the fact that

18        people aren't aware of their benefits we've got

19        to get that information to them multiple ways.

20        And we have to recognize many times when people

21        are separating from service, they're really not

22        ready for the change that's about to come about.

23        You know, we heard from many, many people today

24        and there are some suggestions and we have to



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2         find all the solutions that we need, but it's

3         people like you that are putting in the

4         dedication and the commitment and when something

5         doesn't go right feel the sense of loss that

6         Meghan did, that's going to help us get to where

7         we have to get to.

8                     Everyone that's on, on this, everybody

9         that serves in these committees is very, very

10        committed to helping the veterans of this state,

11        as was for many, as we said they're not aware of

12        what they're entitled to and we have to change

13        that.    The confusion sometimes with people when

14        they don't understand that they are a veteran or

15        they don't step forward to say they were a

16        veteran, or unfortunately, in some cases maybe

17        too proud to ask for assistance when they need

18        it.   We have to change that mindset.                         So I thank

19        you for what you do and some of you I had an

20        opportunity to talk with earlier, we have a lot

21        of work to do, I think all of us are committed.

22        If you got a suggestion you want to make as we

23        close this hearing, we'd be glad to hear it.

24        Okay, again, we thank you very, very much for



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2         your time and we thank all those that

3         participated today and to everyone on the line I

4         think we've had a long day, but a very

5         informative day and you know, we have some time

6         now to think about what we heard today and

7         collectively work together to build a better

8         bridge, to build a better house, to make some

9         folks lives a lot better and a lot easier to

10        prepare for the challenges that's still to come,

11        and to recognize as we listened today just how

12        much this virus, the economic and job related

13        issues that are out there and the stress it's

14        been put on people, have really, really affected

15        the lives of our veterans.                  And you can see on

16        these three people, in particular, how its

17        affected their ability to do their job.                           That

18        extra, that extra piece of the puzzle they have

19        to figure out now is challenging.

20                   So we thank everyone very much and I

21        guess we'll bring this to the close, if you guys

22        are all in agreement.

23                   ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Yes, thank

24        you, senator, for your leadership and thank you



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2         to my colleagues, to Pam and Jake and Patti for

3         being part of this journey with us and thank you

4         all for hanging in there to be our last panel and

5         I think it was really pretty substantive and

6         extraordinary amount of information that was

7         shared and a lot to process as you said.

8                     SENATOR BROOKS:              Yes, indeed.

9                     MS. BROOKS:           Thank you.

10                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Alright, everyone,

11        thank you.

12                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Thanks to

13        everybody, thanks to the committee who is still

14        on, bye, bye.

15                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Yes, bye, bye.

16                    ASSEMBLY MEMBER BARRETT:                     Be well

17        everyone.

18                    SENATOR BROOKS:              Yes, everybody, be

19        well, take care.

20                    (The public hearing concluded at 3:39

21        p.m.)

22

23

24



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                  256 West 38 t h Street, 10 t h Floor, New York, NY 10018
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                 CERTIFICATE OF ACCURACY



I, Claudia Marques, certify that the foregoing

transcript of the New York Joint Senate And State

Assembly Virtual Public Hearing on the Impacts of

COVID-19 On New York's Veterans on August 14, 2020

was prepared using the required transcription

equipment and is a true and accurate record of the

proceedings.



 Certified By




 Date: August 31, 2020



GENEVAWORLDWIDE, INC

256 West 38th Street - 10th Floor

New York, NY 10018




                       Geneva Worldwide, Inc.
       256 West 38 t h Street, 10 t h Floor, New York, NY 10018