By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — The budgetary woes of the Veterans of Foreign Wars could lead to Wyoming spending $50,000 annually to help subsidize the group’s work for the state’s veterans.
The Wyoming Veterans Commission presented a proposal to the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee on Tuesday in Gillette to start funding the VFW’s department service officer in Wyoming. Without the funding, which would cost $100,000 over the biennium, that position would be eliminated by the VFW due to budgetary issues by the end of the 2020 fiscal year.
Veterans in Wyoming have two ways to file claims for things like disability and applications for rehabilitation and education programs, along with pension and death benefits, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. One option is to work directly with service officers from the VFW, Disabled American Veterans or the American Legion. The other would be to work with one of seven state veterans officers, or one of three county officers in Sublette, Lincoln, and Sweetwater counties, to build a claim.
Wyoming’s state and county veterans service officers work with vets across the state to help build their cases and then submit those to the VA through the VFW, Disabled American Veterans or the American Legion.
Those three groups also act as legal representation both in Wyoming and Washington, D.C., for veterans on any major issue that might come up, including rejection of benefits or a lower-than-expected benefit approval, said Stephen Kravitsky, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission.
“(Those three groups) give us legal representation both in D.C. and here,” Kravitsky said. “If we lose that (VFW) position, that’s going to decrease our ability, whether you’re a state service officer or a county service officer, to funnel claims through the only three service organizations that can act as power of attorney on our behalf.”
Currently, Wyoming funds the American Legion’s service officer at $50,000 annually. While DAV’s funding model is secure, Kravitsky said, the VFW has seen a decline in membership, which in turn has hurt the organization’s bottom line.
Without those three agencies, Kravitsky said the state Veterans Commission would be unaccredited to file veterans’ claims with the VA. The American Legion and the DAV would still have their officers in place, but the state’s capacity to file claims and its veterans’ legal representation would be cut by a third without the VFW’s officer.
The potential cut of the VFW service officer would have a substantial impact, especially on Cheyenne and Laramie County, since the VFW’s officer is housed in Cheyenne. Currently, about 25% of all of Wyoming’s veterans live in Laramie County.
“(Losing that position) will cause a monumental backlog on our end before it even gets to the Veterans Benefits Administration,” Kravitsky said.
The backlog also would have a financial impact, not only for the veterans, but for the state as a whole.
According to Kravitsky, last year the seven state service officers filed around 1,280 claims worth about $30 million in new veterans compensation and benefits. On average, veterans in Wyoming receive about $175 million in compensation and benefits, not including health-care funding.
Rep. Joe MacGuire, R-Casper, said it made sense for the state to fund the position given the amount of money it helps bring into Wyoming. But he and other members wanted to see the hard figures on the amount of funding the service officers help secure, and how many claim appeals the three agencies take on for veterans in Wyoming.
Currently, Kravitsky said the Wyoming National Guard’s Adjunct General’s Office is working to get the $100,000 biennium funding for the position in its budget request to Gov. Mark Gordon.
But if the budgetary item isn’t included in that request, it will be up to a legislator to take it on as an individual bill during the 2020 budget session in February, according to committee co-chair Sen. Von Michael Flatern, R-Gillette.