County official says there's no need to farm out veterans services to DAV chapter

BROOKSVILLE — Turning county veteran services over to a local veterans organization could spell an end to some services and open up the county to liability claims over the privacy of medical records.

Those are the conclusions of Russell Wetherington, Hernando County's chief procurement officer, whom county commissioners gave the task of examining a proposal offered by Disabled American Veterans Chapter 67.

Wetherington informed the commissioners this week that he would not recommend approval of the DAV's proposal.

Actually, the county would have to formally seek proposals if it wanted to farm out county-based veteran services functions, Wetherington said. And even with that as an option, he said in a memo to the commission, he would not recommend that the county seek proposals.

There is no need, he maintained.

"We don't really have a problem currently,'' he said.

The local DAV commander, David B. Parker, pitched the idea of the takeover several weeks ago, stirring up concerns in the veteran community. In his written proposal, Parker outlined how the DAV could save the county $45,000 a year.

The DAV would use two certified service officers and two accredited service officers, compared to one county veteran service officer and an assistant. For years, the DAV has provided office hours and veteran services officers of its own, allowing veterans to come by and get help with their veterans benefits.

Matthew Peters, who is the county's veteran services officer, said the facts and figures in the DAV report were wrong and that far more people were served by the county than the numbers quoted in the report.

Wetherington gathered information from Peters, from state veterans officials and also from people who dealt with a similar DAV proposal several years ago in Alachua County.

In his memo to commissioners, Wetherington identified a variety of issues, including uncertainty about whether the county's transportation program for veterans would continue and whether the DAV would be able to make house calls. He also questioned whether the DAV could handle a greater influx of veterans, because now "if someone goes to DAV for help, they have a sign-in sheet which starts at 6:30 a.m., and normally (veterans) sit for hours waiting to be seen.''

By law, patient privacy must be protected, yet "currently the DAV services officer are in the same room with no partitions," Wetherington wrote. "This is a clear violation of (the law).''

County records that include private information about veterans could not be turned over to the DAV, he pointed out.

Wetherington also said there are questions about accreditation, and he said a number of veterans have contacted Peters with their own concerns about the DAV providing services.

"DAV Chapter 67 should be commended for proposing to assume the duties of the Veterans Service Office, but over the long haul this may not be a viable option with the number of veterans going down fast every year,'' Wetherington wrote.

Ken Fagan, a DAV officer and an advocate for the organization's proposal, said he found Wetherington's conclusions and recommendation disappointing, especially since he never contacted the DAV to discuss it.

"We just got blown off. We didn't even get the courtesy of being contacted,'' Fagan said.

He said that a number of Wetherington's concerns could have been addressed, had there been a conversation. For example, he said, the DAV's service officers all conduct business with veterans behind closed office doors.

As for the privacy of information, Fagan said the DAV doesn't keep any medical information. Service officers receive the information they need from the veteran, fill out forms, then give the veteran the information and form to be mailed, he said.

Transferring Veterans Administration records or the transportation program to the DAV would also not be a problem, Fagan said. And he said the that the state DAV assured the local chapter that it could do everything the county does now.

"We were trying to solve a budget crisis. This was just the vets coming up to say here is a solution,'' Fagan said. "There's a savings on the table. It's up to them to take it or leave it.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

In other business

The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday:

• Heard more than a dozen residents who use the tennis courts and playground at Hernando Park in downtown Brooksville beg to keep those facilities open. The residents were told that the city will present its plan for the park to the commission on March 13. The county is considering transfer of the park to the city. Brooksville officials and members of the Brooksville Vision Foundation have talked about a possible long-term plan for the park that would include moving the playground to a new site on the property and closing the tennis courts and relocating them elsewhere.

• Delayed approval of several changes in the county's housing assistance plan to expand uses of the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program. Commissioners were concerned about a proposal to set aside $175,000 to provide emergency roof replacements that would provide $10,000 in no-interest loans to low-income residents. The loans would be forgiven in 20 years. Commissioners asked county housing authority executive director Donald Singer to bring back a new proposal requiring that the loans be repaid when the property changes hands.

• Heard a plea from Amber Costa, who has been operating the concession at Stewy's Skate Park in Spring Hill until recently, to turn the park back over to her. The recent operator, the Save Stewy's Skatepark Organization, allowed the insurance at the park to lapse, breaching its agreement with the county. Interim County Administrator Ron Pianta said the county has taken over the park and plans to keep it open and seek proposals for its operation. Pianta urged Costa to submit a proposal.

County official says there's no need to farm out veterans services to DAV chapter 02/29/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 7:04pm]

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