NORFOLK, Va. — A program designed to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life needs to improve outreach to young veterans and partner with veteran organizations to boost its effectiveness.
That's what the Government Accountability Office said in a report looking at the Department of Veterans Affairs "Solid Start" program.
Every year, approximately 200,000 men and women leave U.S. military service and return to life as civilians, according to the Department of Labor. But many new vets face significant difficulties reintegrating into civilian life during their first year of separation from service.
The Solid Start program was launched in 2019 to help connect new veterans to their benefits, by phoning all eligible veterans three times during their first year after separation.
The GAO report said the VA successfully connected with 71% of eligible veterans in 2021, but outreach lagged for veterans younger than 23 years old.
Solid Start only contacted about 42% of this age group, according to the GAO report.
"The program, it isn't working as intended," GAO Managing Director for Education, Workforce and Income Security Cindy Barnes said in an interview with 13News Now.
Barnes said the VA needs to collaborate with veterans' service organizations to identify and address outreach gaps to ensure that vets access all the benefits they've earned, such as health care and employment counseling.
"We're hoping, especially with those harder-to-reach populations, that they will be able to get the services and resources that they need," Barnes said.
One of the challenges the report cites is the VA's primary instrument of communication -- the telephone -- and the fact that many veterans may be reluctant to answer phone calls, especially if they're unexpected or labeled as spam.
The VA plans to start texting information about the Solid Start program starting in the first quarter of 2023, according to the GAO report.
According to the VA, Solid Star expenditures were about $9.5 million in the fiscal year 2020 due to initial start-up costs, and $5.7 million in fiscal year 2021.