By JENN BOGDAN
ANNAPOLIS - A lack of basic data about Maryland's veterans emerged as the primary roadblock Thursday at a meeting of a task force studying ways to improve services for the state's former military personnel.
The task force, which is due to make its final recommendations to the General Assembly in early December, was reinstated in July 2007 to consider the impact on the state's services in light of the increasing numbers of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One general recommendation made Thursday to increase outreach to Maryland's underserved veteran population proved problematic when committee members realized they did not have enough information about where those people live.
Bob Sharps, outreach director for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, argued that the information would be "extremely difficult" to find because the organization does not actively track the relationship between where veterans live and where they access services.
That explanation didn't appease retired Army Brig. Gen. William C. Bilo, a member of the task force, who said that information was critically important.
"I think we ought to have something there about which areas these are," said Bilo. "Either that or we're talking about smoke here."
The apparent lack of data was a theme throughout the meeting. One committee member wanted to know what percentage of Maryland's veterans are homeless after a recommendation was made to create shelters and transitional housing specifically for homeless women veterans.
"I'd like to see how you can get that," said Sharps, questioning how it would be possible to create a reliable tally of homeless veterans.
In the process of generating recommendations, the task force also found that a number of the issues Maryland veterans are facing originate as problems in the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mental Hygiene Administration Director Dr. Brian Hepburn, a task force member, suggested a recommendation be made at the federal level to automatically enroll individuals coming off active duty for veterans benefits.
Currently, service members are required to physically check off a box on a federal form to become eligible for benefits. Hepburn argued the change is essential because the current system causes confusion for veterans and exacerbates delays in communication between the federal and state systems.
Sometimes the state veterans affairs office receives the list of which veterans are enrolled for benefits before the federal office receives it.
"When we were meeting with the federal VA [Veterans Affairs], they were asking if we could get these [enrollment lists] from the state people because they don't get them, or at least they don't get them in a timely fashion," said Hepburn.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.