Some former service members who have been receiving financial aid through the Spokane County Veterans Services office will no longer be eligible for that program under a new law that takes effect June 9.
The revision affects veterans who never completed basic training. But it also expands aid to some peacetime veterans who were previously excluded, said Chuck Elmore, director of the county office.
The aid consists of vouchers to help cover rent, food, transportation, clothing and burial expenses.
Elmore has been working with state officials since 2010 to change the eligibility requirements.
“I’m tickled to death,” he told Spokane County commissioners this week. “I’ve just bloodied my head against the wall trying to make that happen, but we finally did it.”
The change was adopted unanimously by both chambers of the Washington Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in March. It establishes more specific requirements a veteran must meet to receive assistance from an account administered by Spokane County that’s funded by property taxes. That account doled out $1.5 million in veteran relief last year, according to county figures.
“We’re the only state that mandates a tax levy to do that,” said Elmore, who took over as head of the county’s Veterans Services Department in 2008. The tax was established by state law in 1952.
Heidi Audette, legislative director for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, gathered input on the requirements from Elmore and representatives of the veterans assistance offices in the state’s other 38 counties. She said the new rules would make it easier for workers at the county level to determine who qualifies for assistance.
“There was a lot of confusion out there,” Audette said. “There were two definitions of veteran. It was more complicated than it needed to be.”
Under the new eligibility rules, a veteran must have served at least 180 days and received an honorable discharge to receive assistance from the fund, with some exceptions. Veterans discharged due to injuries or disability caused by their service before 180 days or active reservists called up for combat duty may receive emergency assistance.
Veterans also must provide proof of residence in Spokane County to receive aid.
The dueling definitions of a wartime or peacetime veteran also were eliminated, creating one standard of service that veterans must prove they’ve achieved.
Previously, the state law required only that a veteran had served at least one day during wartime, meaning some veterans who never completed basic training were eligible for emergency assistance according to state law. Most of those served during the Vietnam War, Elmore said.
About 115 people meeting that definition were receiving assistance when he took office in 2008, he said; more recent figures weren’t provided at the meeting.
“That’s where the issue comes from,” Elmore said. “If you’re truly a combat vet and were discharged under honorable conditions, then I don’t have a problem providing you services.”
Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn asked Elmore if his office would be referring those people who no longer qualified for relief money to other public assistance programs.
“I’m assuming that you’re not just going to say, ‘You’re no longer eligible,’ but you’re going to provide them with resources where they could go,” she said.
Elmore said he’d spoken with about a half-dozen veterans in his office, of the roughly 7,000 people the office serves annually, who would no longer be eligible for assistance under the new rules. They must sign letters of acknowledgment that their assistance will expire, and Elmore said his staff has been directing those people to SNAP, Goodwill and the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program administered by the federal Veterans Affairs office downtown.
“We’re trying to make sure they get someplace they can get help,” he said.
Elmore said he’d been meeting with representatives of different veterans groups around town in the coming weeks to address potential issues with the change in benefit eligibility. County commissioners have the authority to expand the definitions if they choose, under the state law.
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