HERO Act ‘monumental’ for veterans, but one expert says it falls short on housing

Vietnam veterans share a laugh during South Hadley’s National Vietnam War Veterans Day Commemoration in March.

Vietnam veterans share a laugh during South Hadley’s National Vietnam War Veterans Day Commemoration in March. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By ALEXA LEWIS

Staff Writer

Published: 06-24-2024 4:18 PM

Modified: 06-24-2024 5:37 PM


A leading veterans agent in the region says an expansive bill soon to become law designed to improve the lives of Massachusetts veterans is “monumental” for its expanded inclusion efforts, benefits, and health care provisions, but the measure fails to provide housing relief for veterans.

The HERO Act — Honoring, Empowering, and Recognizing our Servicemembers and Veterans — includes provisions to bolster benefits for disabled veterans, to improve job processes for veterans and their families, to delineate a more expansive definition of veterans, and to codify certain medical benefits. It also would expand the operations of the Veterans Equality Review Board beyond “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discharges to include various trauma and mental health related discharges, traumatic brain injuries and HIV discharges.

Steven Connor, director of veterans services for Northampton and several other Hampshire County communities, applauded the HERO Act for “expanding behavioral help and getting a better definition of what a veteran is,” as well as its bolstered medical support for veterans. In his experience working with veterans, he said that most of them “are either disabled or struggling economically,” and the HERO Act takes steps to aid them in navigating such issues.

However, he sees a need for future legislation to address a persistent barrier to housing affordability for local veterans.

“We’re looking toward getting more help and more almost cooperation, collaboration, with housing authorities,” said Connor. “Some of our benefits are based on how much they pay for rent… every time their rent goes up, we give them more money, and when we give them more money, the rent goes up.”

He noted that this is because housing authorities count all kinds of income when calculating rental rates.

“I’m asking them not to count our rent benefit,” said Connor. “It’s a constant back and forth.”

Sen. Adam Gomez of Springfield, who helped push the HERO Act through the Senate, said that legislators are hoping to address the housing difficulties faced by veterans within the framework of a new housing bond bill currently being debated on Beacon Hill. The housing bill would direct specific efforts toward ending veteran homelessness and improving housing conditions for veterans by including housing projects, subsidies, and other policy solutions.

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“The housing bond bill is where we’re going to be having conversations on housing as a whole,” said Gomez. “We have to create the type of housing that best suits [veterans].”

Gomez noted that the focus of the HERO Act is to empower veterans by improving and expanding the services available to them.

Empowering all veterans, families

Sen. John Velis of Westfield, who championed this legislative package as chair of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, emphasized that the HERO Act would help women veterans, which he says is the fastest-growing demographic of veterans.

“One really big priority of mine has always been the plight of women veterans,” he said.

Velis mentioned that he has witnessed the discrimination and difficulties faced by female service members and veterans, recalling one instance in Afghanistan in 2012 when a partner he was in conversation with refused to respond to his female colleague’s questions “just because she was a woman.”

“Something that went off in my mind — if I was that captain, that would have had an impact on me,” he said. “What we did in the HERO act was we codified the Women Veterans Network into Mass. General Law.”

This network connects women veterans to services, activities, and one another to empower and support them.

Velis also expressed excitement about family policy improvements within the act, including support services for military-connected children in public schools, improved licensing processes for military spouses seeking jobs upon moving to the commonwealth, and a provision allowing Gold Star Family spouses to remarry without losing annuity benefits.

“If you get remarried as a Gold Star spouse, that says nothing about your feelings for your deceased loved one,” said Velis.

Additionally, Velis put forth an amendment to the HERO Act to protect veterans from predatory “claim sharks” who charge veterans for assistance filing claims with the federal Department of Veteran Affairs, often making promises they can’t fulfill.

“It’s a scam. They can’t promise them anything,” Velis said. “It’s been a practice that really has been unregulated in Massachusetts … we gave them the ability to sue these claim sharks.”

The HERO Act also seeks to empower veterans by increasing the disabled veteran annuity from $2,000 to $2,500, ensuring that cost of living adjustments in Social Security benefits don’t affect veterans’ eligibility for Chapter 115 benefits, allowing municipalities more flexible options for managing veteran property tax exemptions, and updating statute language to be more inclusive. The act also supports businesses hiring veterans by increasing the Vet-Hire Tax Credit to $2,500.

Gomez said that he is particularly proud of the legislation’s expanded definition of veterans and veteran dependents.

“One of the biggest ones for me … it broadens the definition of veterans,” he said. “This change allows more veterans to qualify for annuity.”

Gomez also expressed excitement about the act’s increased access to the Active-Duty Buyback Program, which lengthens the timeframe for veterans to participate in the program, and even offers retroactive participation. The program allows veterans to purchase up to four years of active-duty service time, which go toward their state retirement.

Behavioral and medical health prioritized

Another large focus of the HERO Act is bettering access to veteran services, particularly those surrounding behavioral and physical health.

“We wanted to make sure that wherever there were some services, we could expand those and make sure there isn’t a break in those services,” Gomez said. 

One of the act’s most significant initiatives for improving health care access for veterans would allow veterans to be reimbursed for visits to outpatient behavioral health providers.

“If I have someone who comes back and they’re having issues but didn’t get an honorable discharge, they can’t qualify for the VA … So where do they go?” implored Connor.

The answer, he said, is that they often wouldn’t go anywhere, and would decline getting needed care because of the cost barrier. The HERO Act seeks to mitigate this issue and allow veterans to get the care that they need from other providers.

“Now we can reimburse them for those visits,” said Connor.

Alternative therapies

In addition to traditional behavioral health care access, this legislation pushes for a more novel approach to treating mental health disorders in veterans. The act will initiate a study on the use of alternative mental health therapies for veterans by establishing a working group tasked with analyzing the benefits of therapies as psilocybin, which may be used to treat PTSD and other prevalent disorders among veterans.

The act will also ensure access to essential care by codifying dental and medical assistance benefits for veterans.

Versions of the HERO Act have passed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The chambers are currently reconciling the differences between the two versions before sending the bill to the governor’s desk.

Alexa Lewis can be reached at alewis@gazettenet.com.