The Missouri Veterans Commission has launched a one-stop veterans and military benefits portal, located at veteranbenefits.mo.gov, to aggregate private, local, statewide and national benefits and resources for Missouri veterans and military members.
The website serves as a guide for veterans and military families to access resources across the state. Currently, the portal is divided into 14 areas, including legal, mental health, and health care benefits and resources.
"We're trying to be a one-stop shop to allow ease of access to veterans to the benefits they've earned," said Paul Kirchhoff, Missouri Veterans Commission executive director.
The portal also features a veterans service officer locator, which divides the state into five regions and locates service officers by county.
The Missouri Benefits and Resource Portal was established May 3 as a joint effort by the Missouri Veterans Commission and the Missouri Department of Economic Development Office of the Missouri Military Advocate.
Missouri is home to nearly 500,000 veterans and military members, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said.
The portal was launched at the recommendation of a University of Central Missouri research project commissioned by the Office of the Missouri Military Advocate. The Veterans Innovation Task Force then created a list of suggested long-term actions for addressing the needs of veterans and military members throughout the state, which included the creation of a single location to house resource and benefit information.
"Those military members and their families all the time were asking me and the administration for kind of clarity in the programs and the benefits that the state offers," Missouri Military Advocate Joe Driskill said. "Clearly all that information was contained some place, but it was spread across the different state departments, and you almost had to know what agency to go look for to find the information you were a part of."
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Driskill said veteran and military information availability was previously a grey area within state government. The Missouri Veterans Commission had some information available, but it was never set up to address resources for veterans and military members.
"We're in the age obviously where you got to be able to make resources available to them everywhere you can," Kehoe said. "Some of our veterans still prefer to kind of go with their veteran service officer and follow the more traditional way. But for a lot of our veterans, younger veterans especially who have access to the internet, this is a one-stop shop for just about anything they can ask for."
The referral to Missouri Veterans Commission service officers is a distinction from the federal Veterans Affairs system, Kehoe said, and one that might be beneficial for veterans uncomfortable with a more digital format.
Kehoe said government bureaucracy can be difficult to navigate for veterans unfamiliar with the process of receiving benefits, so the portal is an important comprehensive tool for providing clarity in the resources and efficiency in the process, whether veterans and military members are charting the territory alone or with a service officer.
Troy Williams, former department commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and veteran service officer in Columbia, said the VA hospital in Columbia sees hundreds of veterans each week to assist with disability compensation, health care benefits, education benefits and more. Williams said he plans on using the portal as a resource in his own office as it contains much of the same information he regularly uses.
"We get it on a daily basis from World War II veterans that are still alive, Korean veterans, even our Vietnam veterans, that they have no clue that there are health care benefits for them, that there's disability compensation for them for disabilities they got from service," Williams said. "Those are the things these veterans need to know, and this is something that's put out there that at least they go to and at least get started."
Williams said while the portal is a step in the right direction for providing more information to veterans, many veterans and military members find it difficult to interact with the VA alone, can't get connected to free resources and abandon the process to receive benefits.
For veterans seeking benefits, Williams said he would still encourage them to get in contact with a service officer because of the individual assistance they can provide.
In the future, Williams said he would like to see the portal feature more service officers, not just the contact information for Missouri Veterans Commission service officers.
There are no statistics on the portal's use as it is in early stages of its launch, but the page is active and available for use.
As the portal develops, Kirchhoff said the goal is to add more links to benefits and resources, which he said should help drive traffic to the website.
"We want to make it the best product in the country for veterans," he said. "We want to lead the way as far as access to benefits for our veterans."
Driskill said he couldn't be happier with the process of creating the website and working with the Missouri Veterans Commission.
The Missouri Veterans Commission will continue working with Driskill to improve the portal in the future, Kirchoff said.
Driskill said he hopes to add more information about military benefits, and military family benefits in particular, to the portal. Additional goals include connecting to more federal resources and making the portal easier to use by switching to a query-based format in which users could simply input questions and receive results.