Assembly Democratic Bill Package to Provide Free Mental Health Services, Facilitate Access to Benefits & Resources to Gold Star Families Approved by Assembly

A legislative package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Lou Greenwald, Gordon Johnson, Bruce R. Land, Bob Andrzejczak, Vince Mazzeo, Eric Houghtaling, Dan Benson, Patricia Jones, Raj Mukherji and Joseph Danielsen to provide mental health services and other resources to Gold Star families was approved Wednesday by the General Assembly. 

The term "Gold Star" describes a family member who has lost a loved one in military service. A Gold Star Family member is defined to mean a spouse, domestic partner, partner in a civil union, parent, brother, sister, child, legal guardian, or other legal custodian.

 

A legislative package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Lou Greenwald, Gordon Johnson, Bruce R. Land, Bob Andrzejczak, Vince Mazzeo, Eric Houghtaling, Dan Benson, Patricia Jones, Raj Mukherji and Joseph Danielsen to provide mental health services and other resources to Gold Star families was approved Wednesday by the General Assembly. 

The term "Gold Star" describes a family member who has lost a loved one in military service. A Gold Star Family member is defined to mean a spouse, domestic partner, partner in a civil union, parent, brother, sister, child, legal guardian, or other legal custodian.

"Gold Star families have given the greatest sacrifice they can for our freedoms, and we need to do our part to support them," said Greenwald (D-Camden/Burlington). "These bills will provide needed support to navigate the challenges and difficulties they face in the wake of losing a loved one."

The first bill (A-4399), sponsored by Greenwald, Johnson, Andrzejczak, Jones, Mazzeo, Houghtaling and Mukherji, would establish the "Gold Star Family Counseling Program" in the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) to help provide Gold Star family members with mental health care. 

The Gold Star Family Counseling Program would recruit health care professionals to provide mental health counseling to Gold Star family members free of charge. Specifically, the DMVA is directed to recruit psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, social workers, and family counselors to provide counseling to Gold Star family members. In exchange for the counseling, the mental health care professionals could receive an annual tax credit equal to the compensation foregone for a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 40 hours of donated counseling time each year.

"Family members dealing with the untimely death of a loved one are often left with deep emotional wounds that can take a long time to heal," said Johnson (D-Bergen). "Providing free mental health services can give these families the support they need to get through the grieving process."

"The untimely death of a loved is devastating," said Andrzejczak (D-Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland) "Behind every soldier is a military family that contributed to the safety of our country. We have a responsibility to ensure their stability and well-being when they suffer a loss."

"For many of these families, there is no getting back to normal," said Jones (D-Camden/Gloucester). "It is important that we facilitate access to mental health care services for those families who need the caring intervention of a mental health professional." 

"Without the proper health coverage, these types of health care services can be out of reach for many," said Mukherji (D-Hudson). "This provides Gold Star families who are grieving the opportunity to get the help they need without having to worry about the financial implications."

The second bill (A-4401), sponsored by Greenwald, Land, Andrzejczak, Mazzeo, Houghtaling, Benson and Danielsen, would authorize the Chief Administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission to approve and issue a driver's license and an identification card with a Gold Star Family designation for certain family members of servicemen and servicewomen who lost their lives while on active duty. 

Under the bill, the holder of a driver's license or identification card with a Gold Star Family designation would be eligible for certain benefits, including:

· Free or reduced price admission to New Jersey beaches;

· Free admission to State parks and forests;

· Free admission to the New Jersey State Museum;

· Waiver of license fees charged by several professional and occupational licensing boards in the Division of Consumer Affairs in the Department of Law and Public Safety; and

· Admission into homes, institutions, and hospitals administered by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA).

"We are indebted to these brave soldiers and their families. Anything we can do to make life a little easier for them is the honorable thing to do," said Land (D-Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland). 

"Gold Star families deserve our support," said Mazzeo (D-Atlantic). "While none of this will bring their loved one back, we should make every effort to let them know they are not alone." 

"A sudden death can take a toll on families not just emotionally, but financially," said Danielsen (D-Middlesex/Somerset). "This can help ease some of that burden for Gold Star families."

The third bill (A-4402), sponsored by Greenwald, Andrzejczak, Johnson, Jones, Land, Houghtaling and Benson, would require the Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs, when notified of the death of a military service member, to also notify the appropriate county veterans' affairs office of the service member's death. Under current law, the department is only required to notify the appropriate state veterans' service office of the service member's death. 

This bill would also require every county office to have a designated Gold Star family liaison. The liaison, with the State veterans' service offices, would assist Gold Star families to access the services they are entitled to by providing information on state benefits, Gold Star family organizations, and such other resources deemed necessary and beneficial to Gold Star families.

The last bill (A-4403), sponsored by Greenwald, Land, Johnson, Mazzeo, Andrzejczak, Houghtaling and Benson, would require the Adjutant General to create a public webpage with information for Gold Star families. The webpage must include information about state benefits, state and county liaisons, a list of service members killed in action from New Jersey, links to other Gold Star family organizations, and any other information deemed beneficial to Gold Star families.

"A webpage for Gold Star families would be a comprehensive source of information so that a Gold Star family member may be informed of the available benefits and resources without having to gather such information in a piecemeal fashion," said Houghtaling (D-Monmouth).

"Grieving Gold Star families should not have to deal with bureaucratic hurdles," said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). "We should facilitate access to valuable resources and services so that these families are able to get the help they need as quickly and efficiently as possible."

The first two bills (A-4399) and (A-4401) were both approved unanimously and now await further consideration by the Senate. The last two bills (A-4402) and (A-4403) were approved unanimously by both houses (Senate voted on Feb. 13) and now head to the governor's desk.