Lawmakers respond to an increase of veterans in the state

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San Antonio Express-News & Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree there’s an increasing need to boost health and workforce benefits for Texas veterans this session.

About 31,600 additional veterans are expected to be in the state next year, an impact of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Texas Veterans Commission reports.

The aging population of veterans from WWII, Korea and Vietnam in Texas also increases the demand of veterans services.

Lawmakers seem to be responding to this increase in Texas veterans. There currently are more than 40 bills before the House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, and more than 20 bills before the Senate’s Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee.

Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, filed five bills regarding Texas veterans that were heard before the Senate Veteran Affairs panel last week. Four of the bills passed unanimously, while one was left pending for clarification.

Senate Bill 832, which was passed unanimously through committee, would create a separate workgroup in the Texas Coordinating Council for Veterans Services to analyze veterans’ mental health issues.

The council currently has only one workgroup for health and mental health. These workgroups analyze the needs of Texas veterans and come up with recommendations for the Legislature.

Campbell said bills that deal with mental health would be a priority this session.

“From the governor, the lieutenant governor, our committee finance chair and other senators — we’re all really on board with funding for mental health issues for our veterans,” said Campbell, the chair of the committee.

Most veteran programs are funded by the federal government. These include health care, home loans and life insurance benefits through the Veterans Affairs Department.

According to the budget board, the total federal compensation and pension benefits for Texas veterans in 2012 totaled $4.9 billion.

Although health care seems to be a topic of discussion this session, health care for veteran women may have trouble passing.

There are more than 1.6 million veterans in Texas, and women make up less than 1 percent of that, the VA reports. Despite this low number, some lawmakers believe women who served in the military should have programs available for them.

Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, filed House Bill 867, which would establish a Texas women veterans program.

Campbell said legislation specifically for women veterans is not necessarily a top priority.

“I think mental health in general is a top priority. It’s not just male or female,” Campbell said. “The priority is improving the mental health access for our veterans.”

Rep. Susan Lewis King, R-Abilene, chairwoman of the House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, agreed mental health was a top priority this session but should not necessarily be limited to female veterans.

King said she still would consider bills that would effect veteran women’s health care.

“It will certainly be interested to hear what they have to say,” King said. “I think it’s important to make laws that are embraced by people it would impact.”

There currently is a Women Veterans Initiative at the Texas Veterans Commission to help female vets obtain benefits and services.

The VA says 27 percent of female Vietnam veterans developed post traumatic stress disorder, compared to the 31 percent of men who developed PTSD.

Queta Marquez, retired from the Marines, said women vets have unique needs, such as child care, that need to be addressed.

“There are unique needs that female veterans have,” Marquez said. “People have become aware that it’s an issue.”

Marquez is the Bexar County Veteran Service officer. The group is county-funded and advocates to the VA on behalf of veterans in San Antonio and the surrounding area.

The office sees up to 320 people a month, Marquez said, but there are only five people on staff to handle San Antonio’s high volume of veterans. Bexar County is home to 155,000 veterans, the federal department’s most recent report notes.

Campbell said she also thinks bills that would also improve workforce availability and access to education for veterans would garner a lot of support among lawmakers this session.

“Their lives have been changed, and they need every opportunity they can to be able to get back active in society and be able to make a living,” Campbell said.

Campbell mentioned her own bill, Senate Bill 807, as legislation that would wave license application and examination fees for military veterans who apply for occupational licenses.

Gov. Greg Abbott also has expressed his support for waving fees for veterans, indicating legislation like this could easily pass.

Abbott’s budget calls for exemptions for veterans from paying state registration fees and exempts new businesses from paying state franchise taxes for the first five years. Earlier this year, Abbott also mentioned improving funding for military mental health screenings.

“We must also do more for our veterans who return broken from battle,” Abbott said. “Not all wounds are seen.”

Twitter: @nicolecobler



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