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Bill aims to provide mental health training for veterans, their families Simonaire backs several efforts to help Md. vets

Capital - 1/28/2020

Veterans and their families across the state of Maryland could have access to mental health training that would help them identify and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders if a bill from Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Pasadena, passes.

Simonaire's bill, which would mandate the Department of Veterans Affairs offer Mental Health First Aid training in every location where behavioral health services are offered, is one in a package of seven that he's drafted for veterans' services.

He also has a bill that would allow veterans to adopt dogs and cats for free; one that would help them get service animals; one that would ensure every veteran has an honorable burial; two that would pertain to hunting and fishing access for veterans; and one that would exempt disabled veterans from having to pay property taxes.

Simonaire's effort for veterans is inspired by his father, who is a veteran, and his previous career in which he said he worked alongside the military with Northrop Grumman.

He said supporting veterans is important to him, and expressed concern about veterans dying by suicide at disproportionate rates.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 67 veterans died by suicide in 2016 - nearly 12% of the state's 568 total suicide deaths that year, although they make up only about 9% of the state's adult population.

With roughly 371,000 veterans in the state and many more family members, he said he hopes that a preventative program like this would be able to make a difference.

He said Senate Bill 324 could help family members know how and when to intervene, and how to best provide support to struggling veterans.

The bill doesn't specify exactly what the training looks like, and Simonaire said the Department of Veterans Affairs will likely contract out in order to provide services. The bill would also require that each location that offered the training track how many veterans and veterans' family members took the training, and report to the Department of Veterans Affairs each year. Then each year the Department of Veterans Affairs would be required to produce a statewide report for the governor.

"We're trying to get this important information out," Simonaire said. "I think it's very helpful."

He's also looking at other ways to support healing for veterans.

'Pets for vets'

Senate Bill 90 would make it easier for veterans to get a service animal in Maryland by clarifying definitions of service animals for veterans and thus make the process smoother. It defines "service dog" and "support dog" and adds "therapy horse" to the list of eligible animals, as long as the horse is trained for interactions with veterans by a professionally accredited equine program.

Senate Bill 128 would remove a barrier to pet adoption for veterans by waiving fees on one dog and one cat every six months from any county or city animal shelter.

In Anne Arundel County, this would mean the elimination of a $14 fee to adopt a cat, or a $17 fee to adopt a dog. The fees ensure the pet is microchipped, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and licensed in the county.

The county's Animal Care and Control already runs a similar program called Pets for Patriots, that allows retired or active duty members of the military to adopt a pet for free. In addition to waiving adoption costs, it provides the new owner with a $150 gift card to help with pet supplies, and connects them with discounted veterinary care.

Veterans have to be approved through Pets for Patriots, and are then able to adopt a cat or dog with special needs or that is over 2 years old, or any dog over 40 pounds.

Robin Catlett, an administrator with Animal Care and Control, said the shelter would likely continue with the Pets for Patriots program since it provides the veterans more support with their new pet.

Ensuring an

honorable burial

Another bill would ensure that all veterans receive an honorable burial, by requiring that any funeral home or crematory in possession of the unclaimed remains of a veteran transfer the remains to the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs.

Simonaire said the remains would then be buried in a state cemetery.

Property tax exemption for those injured

in the line of duty

Another bill would expand eligibility for property tax exemption for disabled veterans, who were living with a permanent service connected disability of at least 80% that results from blindness or another disability if it is expected to continue for the veteran's whole life, and as long as the disability was not incurred due to the misconduct of the veteran.

The part of the current law that applies to surviving spouses of veterans killed in the line of duty is not altered by this bill.

Better access

to hunting and fishing

One would repeal a sunset on the Department of Natural Resource's Recreational Licence Donation Program and the Healing Hunter and Fishing Fund, and authorizes a broader use of the fund. It also requires that the fund be administered by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, rather than the Department of Natural Resources. He's excited about this bill and the possibilities it presents for veterans.

Simonaire also sponsored a bill that would make a time-limited bill passed in 2017 permanent. The bill allows active military, former prisoners of war, disabled veterans and recipients of the Purple Heart Award to be given complimentary hunting and fishing licenses. It was enacted in 2017, and without the passing of Simonaire's bill, the program will end.

Senate Bill 25 would repeal the requirement for a related Department of Natural Resources report to be delivered to the governor and the General Assembly by Dec. 31, 2019, and repeal the previously determined program termination date, therefore continuing the program.

"There's a very healing and therapeutic aspect to hunting and fishing that wounded warriors and Gold Star members take advantage of," Simonaire said.

Caption: Simonaire