Danielle Kaeding | WPR News
WISCONSIN—Veterans who have difficulty finding mental health and substance abuse treatment in Wisconsin would be able to continue to access services under a bill being considered by lawmakers. The proposal was unanimously approved this week by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
The Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program began in 2014 with the support of a $1.2 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Health Services partnered to create the program to connect veterans in 49 counties to housing and recovery services. However, federal funding for the program ran out late last year.
The program is vital for connecting vets to treatment in rural areas that often lack resources, said Tammy Walters, president of the County Veterans Service Officers Association of Wisconsin.
“Many of our counties up north, including mine in Oneida County, we had no VA programs for homeless veterans,” he said. “When we had homeless veterans in this county, I would literally go to my Facebook page and say, ‘Hey, I have a homeless veteran. This is what I need for him or her. Can anyone help me out?'”
Without the program, Washburn County Veterans Service Officer Lisa Powers said those who have served in the National Guard or active military may struggle to access services if they can’t obtain them on their own or through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
She said there are few resources for veterans seeking substance abuse treatment and housing in northern Wisconsin. The program helps provide immediate assistance to those who may otherwise wait for services by working with mental health and treatment providers, shelters, counties and nonprofits.
“Otherwise, they direct a homeless veteran down to the Minneapolis area, which is our catch-basin for health care, but there’s nothing up here,” she said.
Sawyer County Veterans Service Officer Gary Elliot agreed treatment and housing options are often difficult to find, especially when counties have limited resources.
“County lines are like state lines since the funding, the taxes, what we work on is limited and it belongs to the county,” said Elliot.
The program has provided around 150 vets with services across 10 northwestern Wisconsin counties, Elliot said.
“They can get them some help, get them some housing, and, hopefully, turn them around where they can stand on their own,” he said. “That came in pretty doggone handy.”
The program would be expanded statewide under the bill and require roughly $1.25 million to provide services through June of next year.
Anyone who has served in the military or National Guard would be eligible to receive substance abuse or mental health treatment, including those who have received other than a dishonorable discharge.
The Assembly bill and companion bill in the Senate now move to the Legislature for a vote.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story reported that service members who received a dishonorable discharge would be eligible for services. The story has been updated to reflect that those who have been discharged can obtain services as long as they did not receive a dishonorable discharge. WPR regrets the error.
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