HARRISON – Karl Hauser, Director of Veterans Services for Clare County, provided an update during the Aug. 17 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners. He began by introducing new service officer Connie Kaczmarczyk, who replaces Deb Mason who had held the position for several years.
Hauser extoled Kaczmarczyk’s qualifications, describing her as a Harrison High School graduate who spent 10 years in the U.S. Air Force, and completed her Master of Business Administration degree through Columbia Southern University.
At this point, Lori Phelps, Clare County Administrator, informed that Clare County had been awarded the Bronze status from the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, and that it had designated Clare County as a Veterans Friendly Employer.
Hauser then drew commissioners’ attention to a handout regarding the PACT Act [Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics], saying it had been signed by the president the previous week and would have a major effect on veterans.
“It greatly expands health care, as well as financial benefits for those who might have been impacted, as well as from residuals from herbicides in Vietnam,” Hauser said. “Also from 1994 for veterans serving in the Middle East from toxic burn pits, from toxic fumes, etc.”
He said that is relevant because in the previous week he had already initiated a half dozen new claims under that legislation. Hauser said there is also a lot of misinformation on what is and is not covered, and he urged commissioners to direct any questions they receive from constituents to his office.
“One of the things we fight against are the personal injury lawyers,” he said. “No offense to attorneys, but veterans do not need to hire an attorney to go through the process – that’s what we’re here for, to try and steer them away from paying money they don’t need to pay.”
Hauser then pointed out veterans’ financial impact to the county, including the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates of approximately 2,609 veterans in Clare County in 2021, and that federal dollars returned to the county for disability compensation and pension (including the highly important, yet often overlooked survivors’) benefits at $15.8 million in FY 2021; $15.6 million in FY 2020; $14.1 million in FY 2019; and $12.4 in FY 2018. Hauser gave the example of surviving spouses of veteran spouses who served in a wartime era, who are being helped by the VA to pay their nursing home costs. He said that while that maximum right now is about $1,300 per month, while not much against high medical bills, it does help.
“It’s important to get the word out that spouses may be eligible for that as well,” he said. “Because a lot of these things also apply for the families.”
Hauser said the more people he gets in to apply to see if they’re eligible for benefits, the more of that money comes back to the county. He acknowledged that it is already Clare County tax dollars, but the more of that money that comes back, the more that will be spent within the county.
“This, honestly, is the only benchmark that I have in how our office is doing,” he said. “So, the idea is to get that number up every year.”
He then moved on to describe the county’s Veterans Transportation Network which includes two vans paid for by donations and matching Disabled American Veterans grant funds. The four volunteer drivers transport veterans to medical appointments in Saginaw, Lansing, Battle Creek, etc. He provided data on the number of veterans transported/miles driven, noting the decline due to COVID, but also the slow increase seen over the last calendar year with more veterans needing rides. Those numbers include: 196/36,028 in CY 2021; 160/27,767 in CY 2020; and in 346/52,946 in CY 2019.
“The reason that’s important is because we’re getting desperately short of drivers,” Hauser said. “They’re all volunteer, and we’ve had a few drop off for various reasons just within the past few months.”
He said his office now has a Facebook page, and the call for drivers is posted there.
“There is a little bit of a process,” Hauser said. “They have to pass the DOT physical, background check, etc., through Saginaw – but it is also very rewarding.”
He encouraged anyone who is available and interested to apply, even if they can drive only once or twice a month.
Hauser also spoke of the expanded VA Clinic in Clare, which includes a Veterans Service Officer office, adding that his goal is to be in that office at least one day each week. That would enable him to meet veterans at the clinic when they come in for medical care, and they can stop in to talk about benefits.
He explained that Kaczmarczyk will be able to keep the Harrison office open on the day he is in Clare, keeping that door open for veterans who may come in.
“I want to make sure veterans have access to the information,” he said. “Even if it’s just somebody stopping in because they want to order a brick for the Freedom Park, or for a copy of their discharge form, I want the office to be open as much as possible.”
Hauser also noted his office’s outreach also includes billboards on U.S. 127 and U.S. 10 which are funded through the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency County Veterans Service Funds Grant. He said the Clare office has been approved for the 2023 grant which will be just more than $60,000 enabling that outreach to continue. Hauser said those funds also enable purchase of the various swag handouts, cards, etc., which are handed out at veterans expos and job fairs, which in turn help bring people into the office to seek help and benefits for which they may be eligible.
Hauser said his office has formed a partnership with the Michigan Trust Fund, and that in the past two months two veterans were able to get wells replaced, courtesy of the Trust Fund. He explained that the Veterans Trust Fund was set up after World War II with $50 million set aside in 1946. That initial amount is not allowed to be touched, but the substantial interest it earns is used to help out in emergent situations.
“Each one of those wells were $8,000 to $10,000 and the Trust Fund covered that so those veterans got water,” he said, adding that there is a committee to review such applications.
Hauser closed with information on Veterans Freedom Park, noting that the last two statues had been installed over the last year. He noted the last statue [current era] which was installed Memorial Day was a female helicopter pilot, and that at the ceremony a female helicopter pilot from the Michigan National Guard had given a talk about it. The long-awaited sound system for the park was also noted as arrived/awaiting final hookup.
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