Governor DeSantis and FDVA Deputy Executive Director Hartsell Highlight 2020 Successes Impacting Florida Veterans
December 23, 2020
TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis and officials from the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA) are pointing to a string of policies and initiatives that were providing critical support to the state’s 1.5 million veterans in 2020.
Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs Deputy Executive Director James S. “Hammer” Hartsell said: “I’m proud of Governor Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis, our Cabinet and legislature in supporting FDVA and the 1.5 million veterans of our state. From the overwhelming passage of Amendment 6 and our comprehensive efforts on mental health advocacy and veteran suicide prevention, to the happy reunion of our veterans’ home residents with their families, we continue to ensure the Sunshine State remains the most veteran-friendly state in the nation. “
Forward March Initiative:
- In March 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis and FDVA leadership announced Forward March, an initiative which aims to unite the combined energy and resources of Florida’s state agencies, veterans’ service organizations, private partners and local communities. Forward March initiatives in 2020 focused primarily on coordinated veteran suicide prevention efforts.
- FDVA’s monthly email subscription newsletter, Forward March, launched its inaugural edition in January 2020. Since January, the subscriber base has grown from 6,845 to 24,217 in the latest issue. No-cost subscriptions are available through the front page of the FDVA website at www.FloridaVets.org
- Governor Ron DeSantis lent his signature to the Florida Veteran Suicide Prevention Month Proclamation, highlighting the state’s involvement with the nation’s comprehensive suicide prevention effort known as PREVENTS, the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide. PREVENTS seeks to change the culture surrounding mental health and suicide prevention through enhanced community integration, prioritized research activities and implementation strategies that emphasize improved overall health and well-being. In conjunction with PREVENTS, Florida accepted the “Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and their Families,” a national call to action asking state, military and civilian interagency teams to embark on a process of collaborating, planning and implementing suicide prevention best practices and policies for service members, veterans and their families statewide. The PREVENTS task force is partnering with stakeholders including the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, as well as nonprofits, state and local organizations, Fortune 500 companies, and government leaders, to implement best practices to improve health and prevent suicide. In July, the White House and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also launched the REACH national public health campaign aimed at empowering all Americans to play a critical role in preventing suicide. The goal of REACH, which was established by the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS), is to change the conversation around suicide by urging people to recognize their own risk and protective factors — as well as the risk and protective factors of their loved ones.
- The Florida Veterans Support Line, 1-844-MyFLVet (693-5838), continues to provide confidential emotional support and connection to community resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The line, supported by FDVA and its suicide prevention partners, is available to all veterans in Florida.
- Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1135 into law on Sept. 18, 2020. The bill introduces 32 new specialty license plates onto the road, including the Gadsden Flag license plate, with annual use fees benefiting the non-profit Florida Veterans Foundation. The Foundation is the direct-support organization of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which through various statewide initiatives provides support to veterans in crisis.
- The Florida Veterans Foundation teamed up with the American Legion of Florida to create the COVID-19 Project Vet Relief Fund. The fund helps with emergency assistance for those veterans who are affected by the pandemic around the state of Florida.
- Under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis, mental health awareness has been a central part of the state’s ongoing response to COVID-19. The Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs ensures Florida veterans, and their families have access to free mental health resources and necessary support through several initiatives.
- For veterans in crisis or those who are concerned, help is available at the Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, and press 1, or text 838255, or chat www.VeteransCrisisLine.net.
- The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay provides suicide prevention and crisis management services for veterans via a 24-hour 2-1-1 Coordinated Call Center: https://www.crisiscenter.com/
- The VA COVID Coach app was created to support self-care and overall mental health during COVID-19.
- Veterans and their families are encouraged to find their nearest Vet Center and call to get connected to counseling services or reach out to the 24/7 Vet Center Call Center at 1-877-927-8387.
- To contact the State Women Veterans’ Coordinator, call 727-319-7418 or e-mail Thomasv@fdva.state.fl.us. If you need support or know of any woman veteran in need of support, you may also contact your local VA Medical Center or text the Women Veterans Call Center at 1-855-VA-WOMEN (829-6636).
- President Donald J. Trump signed two bills into law on Oct. 17, which benefit veterans and their families.
- S. 785, the “Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019,” which amends a number of VA authorities related to helping veterans transition from military to civilian life; suicide prevention; mental health care research and oversight; mental health care staffing; and health care for women veterans; and
- S. 2661, the “National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020,” which designates 9-8-8 as the universal telephone number of the purpose of the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 9-8-8 will be the new universal hotline number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 2022.
Career and Job Opportunities:
- Governor Ron DeSantis issued a proclamation to recognize the launch of Florida’s annual Paychecks for Patriots hiring fairs, taking place virtually and statewide in November 2020. Coordinated by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and the CareerSource Florida network, Paychecks for Patriots career fairs connect veterans and military family members with hundreds of employers throughout the state. This year, for the first time, Paychecks for Patriots hiring fairs are being held virtually to allow safe, convenient access statewide.
- $2,000,000 was awarded to Veterans Florida following the 2020 Legislative Session to meet the duties and responsibilities established by the legislature for the VETS Program, which includes career, workforce and entrepreneurship training. They also started the launch of SkillBridge and the USDA AgVets program with $745,000 in funding. Veterans Florida is a non-profit created by the State of Florida to help military veterans transition to civilian life and to promote Florida’s status as the nation’s most veteran-friendly state.
- Veterans Florida also hosted more than 600 attendees during their June 18 Virtual Expo. Part virtual career fair, part entrepreneur pitch competition, part resource exhibition, the Veterans Florida Virtual Expo offered everything that veterans and their families need to know about working and living in Florida.
- The 76th Anniversary of the GI Bill was June 22. More than 51,000 Floridians currently use GI Bill benefits to further their secondary education. S.3503 gives the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to continue GI Bill payments in the event of national emergencies and health-related situations without interruptions and allows for virtual instruction for both college and career and technical students. The bill also ensures monthly housing allowances will continue until January 2021, giving student veterans protection from uncertain economic times.
- FDVA veterans’ claims examiners assisted the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) by processing more than 11,000 unemployment compensation claims due to the impact of COVID-19.
GI LAW – Lawyers Assisting Warriors:
- Governor Ron DeSantis created the Governor’s Initiative on Lawyers Assisting Warriors (GI LAW) to recruit Florida’s leading law firms to provide pro bono, no cost legal services to Florida’s active duty service members. GI LAW began accepting legal services requests from service members in May 2019, and to date, eight statewide law firms have provided free legal representation to more than 120 service members.
Investment in Veterans:
- Amendment 6, which helps spouses of older combat veterans with service-connected disabilities retain their earned property tax discount upon the passing of the veteran, passed with nearly 90 percent of the vote. More than nine million voters approved the state constitutional amendment in November 2020, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2021.
- Governor Ron DeSantis signed several veteran-friendly bills into law following the 2020 Florida Legislative Session.
- HB 171 – Postsecondary Education for Certain Military Personnel: The act requires the Board of Governors and State Board of Education to adopt a uniform set of rules to award academic credit for college degrees and technical training certification based on service members’ and veterans’ prior military training and experience. The newly enacted legislation helps veterans and members on active duty to achieve their degrees quicker and without having to take unnecessary course requirements.
- HB 205 – Unlawful Use of Uniforms, Medals or Insignia – The act adds a provision to an existing law on stolen valor that misusing a military uniform or decorations for the purposes of obtaining employment or seeking election to a paid public office is now a violation of law.
- HB 877 – Ad Valorem Tax Discount for Spouses of Certain Deceased Veterans Who Had Permanent, Combat-Related Disabilities. Proposes amending the State Constitution to authorize the surviving spouse of a deceased combat-related disabled veteran to carry over certain discounts on ad valorem taxes on homestead property until the surviving spouse remarries or sells or otherwise disposes of the property.
- HB 879 – Surviving Spouse Ad Valorem Tax Reduction. The bill implements HB 877 by placing the legislation as Amendment 6 before Florida voters on the November 2020 ballot.
- HB 1249 – Transfer of Tax Exemption for Veterans: The act adds a provision to an existing law requiring that veterans who were honorably discharged with a service-connected total and permanent disability or their surviving spouses who are entitled to receive ad valorem exemptions on property taxes for one property, may receive a pro-rated reimbursement of taxes paid on any property they buy between Jan. 1 and Nov. 1 of any year.
- SB 294 – Florida Veterans Protection Act: The legislation will help protect veterans by adding the victimization of 10 or more veterans as an aggravated white-collar crime. The Florida Veterans Protection Act adds veterans to the existing “White Collar Crime Victim Protection Act.” The law, which goes into effect on Oct. 1, already applies to victimization of 10 or more elderly individuals.
- Governor Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet voted unanimously to induct 20 veterans into the Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame. The names for the Class of 2020 were presented for a formal vote during the Sept. 22 Cabinet Meeting by FDVA Deputy Executive Director James S. “Hammer” Hartsell. The Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame recognizes and honors those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida through civic, business, public service or other pursuits. It is not a traditional military hall of fame, as it focuses on post-military contributions to the State of Florida.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, launched the first Virtual Veterans Experience Action Center (V-VEAC) July 29-31, 2020. More than 400 veterans received one-on-one assistance during the three-day event, targeted as a pilot outreach initiative for other states. VA, State and Veteran and community based organizations helped eligible veterans in several areas. These included filing, updating and adjudicating claims; enrolling in VA health care and schedule medical appointments; access housing and temporary financial assistance and applying for Florida State Veterans’ Benefits Assistance.
- Volunteer Florida announced in 2020 that $60,000 in Volunteer Generation Fund (VGF) grants funding has been awarded to three nonprofit organizations to help Florida veterans. Volunteer Florida’s VGF program, which is funded by the federal agency, AmeriCorps, helps organizations recruit skills-based volunteers to serve Florida students, families and communities. The following organizations received VGF funding to help veterans for the 2020-2021 program year: Big Bend Hospice Foundation, Inc. ($20,000) – Leon County; Florida Veterans Foundation ($20,000) – Leon County; Operation New Uniform ($20,000) – Duval County.
- Governor Ron DeSantis unveiled Feb. 19 the “Salute Our Soldiers” Military Loan Program (SOS) that is offered to veterans and active duty military personnel throughout the state. Administered by Florida Housing, the program is offering up to $8 million in a variety of down payment and closing cost assistance, coupled with low-interest rate first mortgages.
- Governor Ron DeSantis signed annual proclamations honoring veterans throughout the year, including Purple Heart recipients on Florida Purple Heart Day, Gold Star Family Members on Florida Gold Star Family Day, and POW/MIA Recognition Day in Florida, recognizing our brave service members who are classified as Prisoners of War or Missing in Action.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hosted three VA Benefits Tele-Town Hall Meetings for Florida veterans in 2020 with Dr. Paul Lawrence, VA Under Secretary for Benefits and FDVA Deputy Executive Director James S. “Hammer” Hartsell. Feedback by the VA shows Florida’s veterans participated at a higher rate than their counterparts in other states.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) awarded the lease for a new replacement outpatient clinic in Jacksonville on Sept. 28, 2020. The major lease was authorized under the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017 (“Choice 2.0”) and will expand and enhance health care services for veterans. These facilities are staffed with one or two Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs Claims Examiners who provide point of care benefits services to veterans receiving medical care.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) awarded the lease for the Daytona Beach VA Multi-Specialty Clinic. The design and construction is expected to take 26 months and be completed towards the end of calendar year 2022.
- Connecting veterans with earned benefits, services and support is the top priority of Florida’s teleworking veterans’ claims examiners. For assistance on veteran-related issues, call (727) 319-7440 and they’ll return your call within 24 hours. You may also email them at VSO@fdva.state.fl.us. In spite of the impact of COVID-19, Florida’s veterans’ claims examiners have processed new claims, helped with appeals and assisted more than 130,000 veterans and submitted nearly 43,000 new claims on behalf of Florida veterans since March 2020.
- FDVA’s State Approving Agency (SAA) transitioned to 100% electronic operations. Technical Assistance to School Certifying Officials increased 43% from pre-COVID days and outreach to veterans and dependents who needed assistance increased 44% from pre-COVID days. Virtual, remote compliance survey visits for oversight and continued approval of facilities to participate in VA Education Benefits were performed at 66 of 97 assigned visits and represented 66% of the SAA’s compliance schedule.
- The Veterans’ Preference Coordinator worked with 37 Florida veterans whose Veterans’ Preference may not have been properly applied during the hiring process for a government position.
- FDVA printed and distributed 60,000 copies of the 2020 COVID-19 edition of the Florida Veterans’ Benefits Guide, courtesy of a grant from the Florida Veterans Foundation. An interactive online version is also available on the FDVA website at www.FloridaVets.org.
State Veterans’ Homes:
- The FDVA budget resulting from the 2020 Florida Legislative Session was signed into law by Governor DeSantis and supports the daily operations of Florida’s six state-run veterans’ nursing homes and one assisted living facility. The facilities provide essential services and care to veterans throughout Florida.
- The Ardie R. Copas State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Port St. Lucie is in the final stage of construction, inspections and recruitment of health care staff. FDVA anticipates an early 2021 opening.
- The Lake Baldwin State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Orlando is in the final state of construction, inspections and recruitment of health care staff. FDVA anticipates an early 2021 opening.
- All state veterans’ homes secured PPE, developed policies and procedures for COVID-19 testing and visitation, and implemented direct care provider training to optimize health care and socialization for veteran residents.
- The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) awarded its Five-Star Quality Rating in 2020 to all six state veterans’ homes. They are the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Land O’ Lakes, Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Port Charlotte, Alexander “Sandy” Nininger State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Pembroke Pines, Clifford C. Sims State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Panama City, Emory L. Bennett State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Daytona Beach and Clyde E. Lassen State Veterans’ Nursing Home in St. Augustine.
- The Baldomero Lopez State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Land O’ Lakes and Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Port Charlotte received the Governor’s Gold Seal Award. The Gold Seal program was developed and implemented by the Governor’s Panel, recognizing nursing home facilities that demonstrate excellence in long-term care. Twenty-eight skilled nursing facilities received 2020 Governor’s Gold Seal Awards in Florida for providing consistence and exceptional high level of care to their residents.
- The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living recognized five state veterans’ homes for earning a 2020 Silver – Achievement in Quality Award. They are the Alexander “Sandy” Nininger State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Pembroke Pines, Baldomero Lopez State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Land O’ Lakes, Clifford C. Sims State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Panama City, Emory L. Bennett State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Daytona Beach and Robert H. Jenkins Jr. Veterans’ Domiciliary Home in Lake City.
- Governor Ron DeSantis highlighted 88-year-old Korean War veteran Clyde Finch from the Alexander “Sandy” Nininger State Veterans’ Home in Pembroke Pines during his televised remarks. Finch recovered from COVID-19 and is back at the veterans’ home.
- The Florida Health Care Association (FHCA) named Liz Barton, administrator of the Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Port Charlotte, as its Nursing Home Administrator of the Year for 2020.
- The Florida Health Care Association (FHCA) named Reina Beck, a licensed practical nurse and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, Licensed Practical Nurse of the Year for 2020. Beck, an Army veteran, has been serving veterans at the Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Port Charlotte since 2015.
- The Florida Health Care Association (FHCA) appointed FDVA’s Richardean Bruce to the FHCA Performance Excellence Council. Bruce is the FDVA representative to the State Plan Advisory Group for Elder Affairs.