Veterans groups are hailing a new state law that requires the directors of county veterans service agencies to possess federal accreditation before they can help veterans obtain disability benefits.
"This bill was a must," said Andrew Booth, legislative co-chairman of the American Legion of Nassau County. "It's amazing how long veterans have to wait" for benefits.
The law would have particular impact in Nassau County, where Veterans Service Agency director Joe Pascarella lacks needed federal certification that would allow him to file paperwork for veterans seeking VA disability benefits.
Brian Nevin, an aide to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, said Pascarella's lack of certification has not harmed the veterans agency, and that he has been an efficient manager. Nevin said the agency has helped secure some $5 million in veterans benefits claims so far this year, up from less than $1 million in all of 2006.
Veterans advocates say the new requirement is particularly important locally because Nassau County currently has only four staff members accredited to prepare veterans' claims, down from eight in 2010, in a county with one of the nation's largest veteran populations.
But some veterans say the law, which was signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on July 31, and which goes into effect Aug. 30, is not strong enough because it would give sitting directors as much as three years to become accredited.
Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck), a co-sponsor of the legislation, said it would not have passed in Albany without the grace period. Booth said he did not object to the grace period.
The VA strongly encourages veterans seeking benefits for service-related disabilities such as physical ailments or psychological wounds to get help while completing the often vexing paperwork required to obtain benefits. But only individuals who have been certified by the VA are allowed to complete or review veterans' claims. Schimel said 40 percent of New York's county veterans agency directors lack such certification.