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Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency honored nationally for serving incarcerated veterans

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For the third time in its six-year history, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency has won a prestigious national award for connecting veterans with benefits they earned during military service – this time for its Incarcerated Veterans Program.

The 2019 Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, recognizes the MVAA’s first-in-the-nation initiative that ensures incarcerated veterans receive the same measure of advocacy as other veterans.

The program makes Michigan the only state in which a veteran can get connected to VA disability benefits while incarcerated. A veteran’s benefits are greatly reduced during incarceration and must be reinstated once the veteran is separated or paroled.

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Launched in 2014, the program is a collaboration between the MVAA, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), the VA medical centers in Saginaw and Ann Arbor and the Veterans Benefits Administration office in Detroit.

“This initiative addresses the most pertinent problems among incarcerated veterans, helping them achieve the financial security and self-respect needed to successfully transition back into the community,” said Tim Loney, Deputy Director of the MVAA. “These Americans at one time had a willingness to give their lives if necessary in service to country and should be afforded the same provision of advocacy as all other veterans to assure their acceptable standard of living and quality of life when returning to their communities.”

Central to the program was the MDOC’s commitment to create a special veterans unit at the Saginaw Correctional Facility for male incarcerated veterans. Of the 2,300 incarcerated veterans in Michigan, more than 98 percent are men. (All female prisoners are housed at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.) The MDOC also transports incarcerated veterans to the respective VA medical centers in Saginaw or Ann Arbor for requisite physical examinations at no cost to the veteran. Previously, incarcerated veterans were unable to attend these examinations and their applications for benefits were often terminated.

MDOC Director Heidi E. Washington said starting the veterans unit in Saginaw was a priority and that she hopes to continue expanding services there.

“We are very excited that this program has been recognized on a national level and are very grateful for the partnership with MVAA,” Washington said. “I am saddened that we have 2,300 incarcerated veterans in our state prison system, but I hope that by working together we can change that.”

Through another facet of the program, accredited veteran service officers from the MVAA meet regularly with incarcerated veterans at the two correctional facilities to provide briefings on state and VA benefits, help veterans file disability compensation claims and provide updates on the claims process. When veterans are nearing release, the MVAA assists them with getting benefits reinstated.

“In the past, Michigan veterans who were paroled typically had to wait several months or more for their benefits to be reinstated, but this program can cut that time to less than 30 days,” said Rob Price, Director of Targeted Outreach for the MVAA. “The program increases the veteran’s chance to succeed after incarceration by providing a source of income, reducing their family’s need for public assistance and helping reduce Michigan’s recidivism rate.”

The Pillar Awards, developed in 2013 by the VA and the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs (NASDVA), are inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”

This year, Pillar Awards were presented to five states – Michigan, California, Delaware, Maine and Nevada – and the District of Columbia, in four categories. The MVAA’s Incarcerated Veterans Program was recognized in the category “Consumer Experience with VA Benefits and Services.”

In 2016, the MVAA won two Pillars — one for its Michigan Veterans Community Action Team, a community-based program that brings together local organizations to better serve veterans, and one for its Michigan Veteran Resource Service Center, a one-stop center connecting veterans to benefits and services through 1-800-MICH-VET.

PHOTO CAPTION: MVAA Deputy Director Tim Loney, third from right, accepts the Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence award Feb. 25 in Alexandra, Virginia, for the agency’s Incarcerated Veterans Program. Along with Michigan, four other states and the District of Columbia were honored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for their work to support veterans.