HANSON – With the federal PACT Act going into effect this month, veterans service officers are already seeing an increase in the need for their services, and it’s making Hanson reconsider sharing a part-time VSO with another community.
The PACT Act is a new federal law that expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances, adding to the list of health conditions that are presumed to have been are caused by exposure to these substances.
Town Administrator Lisa Green also recommended making Hanson’s VSO a full-time position, paying $55,000 to $60,000, with benefits, for 32 hours per week of work. The Select Board voted unanimously to support the move.
Green reported to the Select Board on Tuesday, Jan. 31, on the pros and cons of shared services officer in the wake of current VSO Timothy White announcing his departure to take a full-time position in another community.The board had voted to accept with regret White’s resignation when Green announced it last week. He has been a part-time agent in Hanson and is taking a full-time position as veterans’ agent in a neighboring town.
“We’re losing a part-time, wonderful, talented, dedicated veterans’ officer to a full-time position,” Green said Jan. 24. White has agreed to stay on while the town vets the process and would be willing to train a new agent.
Hanover had expressed interest in shared veterans services with Hanson, with Hanover funding the position benefits.
Green said, in talking with Hanover officials, there were more cons to the arrangement than she anticipated – difficulty in transportation for Hanson veterans if the agent were located in Hanover and conflicts in ceremony and parade schedules, among them – suggesting that the town consider making the position in Hanson a full-time one.
Key among the considerations for that move has been the added services for veterans included in the new PACT Act provisions, which is not only opening new benefits for Vietnam-era veterans, but Gulf War and Post-9/11 veterans, as well as the geography of where veterans served when they were exposed.
“The word is spreading,” White said. “More than half my work is PACT Act or visitation.”
He said a veteran who may have passed away of cancer or another connected illness years ago, the surviving spouse is now eligible for assistance through the legislation, so long as they have not remarried.
“That’s the workload that people don’t know, and the word needs to spread more and more [of] the importance of outreach, if you decide to go in a full-time mode,” White said. “There’s [also] tons of surviving spouses out there that are out there that may, quite possibly be eligible for VA compensation.”
Memorial Day parade schedules are also difficult without angering “multiple American Legions, VFWs, DAVs” when more than one event takes place at the same time.
“All of the people who show up, care deeply,” he said.
White has put in more that the two-days a week he is scheduled to serve Hanson in his shared role with Rockland.
“As veterans’ agent, everything I do brings back money to the town,” he added, through VA claims that aid veteran’s bank accounts, to benefits that come back to the town through state aid programs.
The part-time salary for the position is $31,998, according to Green, citing the FY 2023 budget. In fiscal ’24, it is $32,637. A full-time salary range from $56,100 to $73,358 in surrounding South Shore communities.
“Talking with Eric today, my thought was if we offered a 32-hour a week position at $55,000 per year, that might be enough to entice someone to join us as a veterans’ service officer,” Green said of accountant Eric Kinsherf. “We can actually use some ARPA money to supplement the budget for the next two years.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett also said housing the Hanson VSO in another town was a “no-go” for her, as well, but she cautioned about one-time ARPA funds to pay for recurring expenses like salaries. Interim Town Accountant Eric Kinsherf said $25,000 to fund the post was something that could be funded in the budget, especially if the VSO is effective in bringing funds to the town.
“The way I look at it, would be a bridge to build it in the budget,” he said. By the third year cannabis tax funds can be used to help the cost and a good VSO can also the town will ensure state and federal revenues will be obtained as well. Meals taxes could also be a funding source.
“This is important,” Select Board Chair Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said, noting the difference the PACT Act has made in her own family. Her father died of cancer caused by Agent Orange exposure.
“I will tell you, the fact that he applied for [VA] benefits has made a tremendous difference in my mother’s life,” she said.
White said the $55,000 Hanson is offering is competitive. He said a lot depends on the candidate, saying for example, as a Coast Guard veteran he does not take benefits from the town.
White said some veterans he is assisting now has held off seeking benefits for years.
“These type of human services, supports and resources that we have – I like the way, in talking about this, you put revenue as dead last,” Select Board Vice Chair Joe Weeks said. “It’s about quality of life, it’s about people. It’s about people that have contributed to society in some way, either through the elder affairs office or … the services that you do. We already know it’s a full-time job, just in people coming to you.”
Weeks said a bigger impact would be to go find people that do not know about services for which they may be eligible.
White said Council on Aging Director Mary Collins, provides equally vital services. She has saved 104 in-person and 17 over-the-phone applicants $45,077.66 in supplemental Medicare insurance costs during open enrollment this fall. During the rest of the year, she has counseled an additional 171 residents as they contemplate retirement.
“We very strongly encourage our seniors to seek out a SHINE counselor each year … even if we think things are going well,” she said. “We want to try and get the most bang for their buck.”
She has also seen 22 new fuel assistance applicants this year.
In her update to the board, Collins said the new Outreach Coordinator Linda Mulrey is “the perfect fit” for the position helping with fuel assistance applications, and she will be taking SHINE counseling training, along with two volunteers, to help with health insurance applications next year.
Families may be eligible for fuel assistance without realizing it, she said, with an application deadline at the end of April. Applications may be completed online or in-person. Last year the deadline was extended, and Collins said federal officials quite often add funds to the program.
“It’s been a really tough year for people,” she said regarding fuel assistance. “They are really struggling.”
To obtain fuel assistance, salary requirements are up to – $42,411 for a single applicant; $55,461 for a family of two; $68,511 for a family of three; $81,561 for a family of four and $94,610 for a family of five.
She also urged elders to stop by to peruse food donations, which are often given by stores like Shaw’s as well as charitable groups.
South Shore Elder Mental Health Consortium through a grant, will offer mental health counseling and classes for seniors by Bridgewater State University second-year masters-level social work students at the center in the fall.
“This is something that, sadly, very few senior centers can afford to provide, but is very, very necessary,” she said.
She also thanked local groups such as South Shore Tech, Hanson Community Christmas, the Hanson AKTION Club, the Senior Center Friends Group and the volunteers and staff at the Senior Center for all they have done to support the town’s elders.
“You are amazing and we always feel grateful to have you in this role,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
“Mary talks about other people,” Select Board Member Jim Hickey said. “She would never say the stuff that she does. She’s just an amazing woman.”