Georgia not spending enough on veterans’ services. GA behind other smaller nearby states

The state is seriously underfunding mental health and housing services for veterans, professionals in the field told Georgia lawmakers Tuesday.

The state’s two veterans homes in Milledgeville and Augusta currently are serving about 400 veterans, far below the estimated need of 1,975. Neighboring states with lower populations - including Alabama and South Carolina - have up to a half dozen veterans homes inside their borders.

“We are woefully behind other states,” Patricia Ross, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, said during the initial meeting of the state Senate Study Committee on Veterans’ Mental Health and Housing. “We are really failing our veterans.”

Numerous studies have shown that veterans suffer from mental illnesses including chronic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder serious enough to contemplate suicide at much higher rates than the general population.

A recent Georgia-specific study found that one in five veterans suffers from substantial chronic stress, said Brian Moore, a psychology professor and director of the Ames Research Center at Kennesaw State University. One in five vets also are experiencing financial stress, which can lead to depression, he said.

Georgia veterans tend to have a hard time obtaining mental health services because they are uninsured at about twice the rate of the general public, Moore said.

The study also found that veterans suffer disproportionately from food insecurity and housing insecurity. More than 10% told researchers they don’t eat three meals a day, he said.

Moore cited national statistics showing Georgia is ranked 48th in the nation in access to behavioral services.

“It’s not because we can’t do it,” he said. “We just don’t have enough people to do it.”

Ross said there have been some success stories in Georgia, including the hiring of a suicide prevention outreach coordinator two years ago who has reached out to 12,244 veterans. Her agency also is working in partnership with the Ames center on a suicide prevention program, she said.

The state also will have a full-time coordinator to focus on veterans’ housing needs starting July 1, she said.

Moore said the state should build additional veterans homes to meet the need for mental-health services. He suggested Waycross and Dahlonega - with large veterans populations in their regions - would be good sites for two more homes. The federal government would pick up 65% of the construction costs, he said.

Moore also recommended establishing a state-level coordination center for veterans services that currently are being offered in a disjointed manner.

Ross said another area that needs improving is the way the state serves veterans making the transition from the military to civilian life. Veterans who haven’t made that transition successfully after three years tend to encounter serious mental-health issues, she said.

“What we have not done a good job with is to be able to capture these folks and help them with transitioning,” she said.

The study committee has until Dec. 1 to make recommendations for improving the delivery of mental-health and housing services for veterans in Georgia.