One of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ most effective outreach efforts may be a simple telephone call to ask veterans if they have any questions.

According to data to be released later this week by the Government Accountability Office, staffers in the VA Solid Start program were able to connect with more than 70% of recently separated servicemembers in fiscal 2021 to discuss health care benefits, program offerings and other veteran-related questions.

That figure (which amounts to more than 137,000 completed calls) was up from about 57% in fiscal 2020. Fiscal 2022 figures were around the same level as 2021 but incomplete as the GAO report was finished.

Veterans who spoke with the department representatives were more likely to use their education benefits, apply for disability payouts, enroll in VA health care and access job training opportunities.

“VA data showed that about 44% of veterans who were successfully contacted enrolled in VA health care, compared to about 7% percent of veterans who were not,” the GAO analysis states.

“[The] program connects new veterans to crucial benefits and resources to help overcome significant difficulties they may face in reintegrating to civilian life.”

The Solid Start program was launched in late 2019 as an effort to more actively inform veterans of available resources and assistance as they transitioned from military to civilian life.

It includes three calls from VA officials to new veterans within their first year of separation — one after 90 days, one after 180 days and one near the 365-day mark — to “inform [veterans] about what to expect during this critical time and help [them] build a solid start to [their] civilian life.”

The program was codified by Congress in 2021. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee member Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., was the chief proponent of that move and called the latest results from the program encouraging.

“The Solid Start program is an essential way to better meet the needs of our country’s veterans, ensuring that they are aware of the VA services and support that can help ease their transition to civilian life,” she said in a statement.

“I was glad to work with Republicans and Democrats to enshrine this program into law, and this GAO report shows that the VA is successfully taking proactive action to contact veterans and connect them with VA services, including for mental health care.”

However, she also noted areas of future improvement detailed by the GAO.

Researchers said in their report that younger veterans and individuals with limited phone access continue to be difficult to contact. Staffers only reached 42% of veterans under age 23 in fiscal 2021.

In response to the report, VA officials said they are planning text message options and scheduling calls in advance with veterans in order to cut down on the number of individuals who may assume the calls are telemarketers or other unwanted contacts.

They also said they plan to work more closely with veterans groups in coming months to identify other gaps with the program and find solutions for them.

More information on the program is available at the VA website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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