SACRAMENTO -- State officials in cash-strapped California are trying to find the money to locate hundreds of thousands of military veterans who could be missing out on benefits.
The California Department of Veterans Affairs has contact information for only about 20,000 of the state's 2 million veterans.
Locating the others and connecting them with veterans benefits could bring hundreds of millions in new federal funds annually to help bolster the economy.
But even supporters concede that the outreach could intensify the growing strain on county veterans service officers.
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Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, an El Dorado Hills Democrat who is pushing the outreach effort, said the state has an obligation to assist those who have helped protect the nation.
"It's the least we can do. They've sacrificed, their families have sacrificed," she said.
A key problem is that many veterans of Vietnam, Korea or World War II are not aware of eligibility rules for benefits and California does not track their addresses to contact them, Huber said.
Antiquated record keeping in decades past is one reason. Others range from lack of a formal process for tracking address changes to a decision by some veterans to sever ties with agencies, officials say.
Richard Melendez, 59, who served in the Vietnam War and commands Sacramento's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 67, said he suspects that he suffered from post- traumatic stress disorder but was reluctant to request help.
"I didn't want to seek it because I didn't want to admit I needed it," Melendez said.
State officials want to inform veterans about federal pension and disability payments averaging $12,566 annually for ailments ranging from diabetes to respiratory cancers.
California ranks 33rd in the percentage of its veterans, 13.7, that receive such federal benefits, said Ted Puntillo of the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some state benefits also are available to disabled veterans, including property tax exemptions, college fee waivers, and reduced hunting and fishing fees. The impact of outreach on state revenue is expected to be minimal, however, because the number of veterans declines each year.
Huber helped spearhead a recent interagency pact that will ask applicants for driver's licenses, new and renewals, whether they are veterans and if they want information about benefits.
The state plans to place veterans' names and addresses in a proposed database. Those who desire would be contacted by a county veterans service officer who could explain eligibility and help file multipage applications.
The rub? Money. Altering the driver's license application to identify veterans is expected to be absorbed under existing budgets, but new funds are needed to create the database and to hire more outreach staff.
Names of veterans from Vietnam and earlier wars would surface from the driver's license program at the same time county veterans service officers are serving tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan returnees.
To compound problems, counties provide more than 80 percent of funding for veterans service offices and budget crises have forced them to cut 40 of 165 positions the past two years, according to the California Association of County Veterans Service Officers.