Each year about 200,000 service members separate or retire from the military, many without clear employment plans for the future.
Among key issues veterans face include navigating VA healthcare and benefits, acquiring and maintaining employment, adjusting back into civilian culture, and the myriad financial struggles that can stem from each.
Adding to that navigational difficulty is the fact that there are currently more than 45,000 nonprofits in the U.S. providing veteran services that range from housing and mental health to food security, according to a 2015 report from the nonprofit GuideStar.
Veterans Dan Brillman and Taylor Justice saw this fragmented system firsthand.
Brillman, an Air Force reserve pilot who deployed to the Middle East in 2010 and 2012, first met Justice, who was medically discharged in 2007 after serving as an Army infantry officer, in 2012 at Columbia Business School.
“Within about five minutes [of meeting] we both realized a shared passion and vision for what was needed,” says Justice.
For veterans attempting to navigate the world of healthcare and social services, the delays and administrative nightmares alone can be enough to discourage seeking help, they said. Some agencies, Brillman and Justice found, were even working with outdated modes of sticky notes and word of mouth to communicate with other agencies.
“When you’re working with someone dealing with PTSD or other mental health needs, putting them into an environment that is super frustrating can be triggering,” says Justice.
So, In 2013, Brillman and Justice co-founded the technology company Unite Us, with the intention of bridging the gap of coordinated care and providing an access point to community, healthcare, and other veteran services. Today, Unite Us supports 42 states across the country and offers software accessible to any military member, veteran, or military family member, regardless of discharge status.
Brillman and Justice recently spoke with Military Times to discuss how the technology can help veterans streamline access to care.
MT: Can you discuss your backgrounds and how the idea for Unite Us came to be?
Dan Brillman: I went to Yale for undergrad before joining the Air Force as a pilot. I’ve been in the military for 14 years now as a reservist. In my first five or six years I deployed multiple times. After I came back from my first deployment, I went to Columbia Business School. Veterans I served with overseas started calling me for all health and social service issues as if I could solve them. I guess they thought I was smart, but I had no experience in the industry. [It] amounted to a lot Google searches.
I was trying to call agencies across the country to help reservists back in their hometowns with issues ranging from housing and post-traumatic stress to health insurance, because they weren’t eligible for the VA. It was very siloed. When I called an agency they would typically say, “Sorry, I can’t help them, but call my friend Jane down the street.” They were giving me these kind of offline referrals to four to five partners they knew in the community that could maybe help this person.
I became very frustrated about it, so like every good MBA does, I wrote a paper about the fragmentation and how technology could solve that.
Taylor Justice: I graduated from West Point 2006, was commissioned as an infantry officer, and unfortunately, was medically discharged. So, a lot of the experiences Dan just explained, I was trying to navigate those for myself: dealing with the VA, finding a new job, finding a place to live. I was fortunate enough to be able to rely on the West Point network, and landed in Philadelphia where I found my first job.
I’d gotten involved as a volunteer with a veteran nonprofit organization called Team Red, White, and Blue, and founded the Philadelphia chapter of this national nonprofit. The organization is focused on physical fitness and social activities, but as the chapter grew from about five of us to over 600, people came in with needs outside of what we could facilitate.
If a veteran needed assistance with housing, employment, and food, there were three different organizations that provided those services — they were coordinating care through sticky notes, emails, phone calls. It was an administrative nightmare.
When I was applying to Columbia Business School, I was randomly paired with Dan to talk about admissions to the program. Within about five minutes we both realized a shared vision for what was needed. We started Unite Us at the beginning of 2013 to deploy software into communities to better coordinate care specific to the veteran and military population, but it has grown into supporting all populations, and now, in 42 states across the country.
Over the last two years, Unite Us has moved into Medicare and now serves the civilian population. How have you been able to remain focused on your original mission with veteran communities?
Brillman: There are two parts in how it’s evolved in the military community. The networks we built have taught the larger population agnostic networks how to do this work. because we’ve been doing it for the longest period of time with them. What does success look like? How do we get data driven around closing gaps of services? Things like that.
In North Carolina, for example, we brought together all the veteran leaders who were leading these networks and said, “here’s how we want it to function.”
At the same time, what we really found was most of the organizations using our platform weren’t just veteran organizations. They had a program that was specific to veterans, but they served all populations. That made the expansion of our product and our services easier.
Justice: The word expansion is really important to us. When you’re in the tech industry, everyone throws out buzz terms, saying, “Oh, you pivoted away from veterans.” That’s not the case. The veteran and military community are the perfect petri dish of American society when you look at age, race, and socioeconomic status. The same issues that we deal with, they deal with.
But in some cases, you don’t have access to those services. So, what do you do? We saw the veteran community was the perfect proving ground to provide a solution for all citizens, regardless of what their background was. If you have multiple organizations that need to coordinate care around a single individual, we’ve got a solution for you.
To use one of those buzzwords and “pivot back” to veterans –– major issues the veteran community faces include getting access to mental health and homelessness, among others. How has Unite Us helped bridge those gaps?
Brillman: When you think about the needs of veterans, what we know and what we surveyed is that it’s not so much about the mental health, it’s the issue of navigating all these silos of healthcare, government, and social services.
As a client in need, that is the most frustrating part. To remove those barriers is the key. It’s not like those services do not exist at all, it’s about creating the right infrastructure to access those services efficiently.
The most important part before we ever could do that was build a supply chain to get them connected and communicating. It isn’t just about mental health. There are underlying housing or unemployment issues. It requires all these organizations to work together and reduce the frustrations of navigating the health sphere.
Justice: To Dan’s point, navigating these resources can be extremely frustrating. When we look at solutions, it’s not just “how do I address housing?” or “how do I address mental health?” It’s “what are those issues that are causing those other things?”
I can pay for someone’s rent for a particular amount of time, but if I don’t address the employment need, or some other root cause of that issue, they’re going to be back into that same cycle within a short period of time.
What we’re doing is building that ecosystem so that when you plug into that one network, it’s going to work for you.
Does Unite Us coordinate with the VA?
Brillman: We have the VA using our system on the inbound side. One of the things the VA really wants to do is get more veterans enrolled. So, we want to create a way into the VA that would otherwise not be there via community organizations. The VA only really does one or two things, right? They provide primary health care, medical services, and some behavioral health services. Everything outside of that they cannot facilitate, so they need those connections in the community.
The other thing we’ve also brought on and catalyzed was the DoD, the National Guard, and appointment centers on installations, because they are also access points. It doesn’t have to be restricted to when you are transitioning or already a veteran. Activating those organizations and access points was really important.
How has COVID-19 impacted your mission?
Justice: I think one of the big things we realized was the lack of appropriate public health infrastructure. The first order of the pandemic was to address the clinical response to COVID-19. But the second and third order was the unprecedented stress on human and social service systems.
You have people out of work or community-based organizations that had to shut their doors. You had children who lost access to food because school was shut down. That pressure put on these local systems made it hard to then navigate services with sticky notes, brochures, and phone calls. What was needed was an appropriate supply chain.
We were in the fortunate position to be able to respond to state needs and deploy infrastructure. Prior to 2020, we had only one statewide network (in North Carolina) — meaning a statewide partnership with health systems and health plans in the community. We were able to replicate that 16 times in 2020 because the need was so great.
So, we’re just continuing to build this end-to-end solution for communities where we can identify those in need, enroll them into the appropriate services, and track that they received those services, with the goal of ultimately moving this sector down a path where social care is at the same priority level as health care.
Who do you frequently see being served by your software?
Justice: I think the true north of this work is, “Can I prove that someone received the services or not?” The technology must be accountable and efficient. That supply chain is really important because people will think, “If I have the most up to date resources all I need to do is give that to the veteran or their family.” But you can’t just give someone the resources, you have to build an infrastructure, prove that the veteran actually got there, and then continue to course correct and optimize that network over time.
I think that’s the difference that we’re seeing in the market right now from the pandemic. It’s no longer good enough to just say, “Hey, here are the resources.” You need to prove that they actually work.
How do you get veterans on board when there is a mistrust in the system?
Brillman: I think the theme is meeting veterans where they are versus trying to build a system they may not trust. A lot of this is based around the community — the VFW or a local rotary. We try and find the access points. It’s not just a medical problem, right? It’s about trust.
Justice: Trust is so important, but trust moves at the speed of innovation, right? If I finally get that Vietnam veteran to show up and say, “Hey, you know what, I need assistance,” and then it takes 30, 60, 90 days to even follow up or take care of them, is that creating an environment where they trust that system?
We’re in a world now where technology can do a lot of things for us and help us operate more efficiently. We wanted to create a network so that once that person shows up and is willing to receive help, you plug them into a network that’s going to be efficient and work for them.
For the final, hard hitting question, Military Times recently posted on social media a classification of military branches as sandwiches. Army was a grilled cheese sandwich. The Air Force was described as a French dip. Do you agree with this ultra serious classification? And if not, why?
Justice: We always used to say that Air Force bases were built on golf courses, so the fact that it’s going to be a French dip sandwich is fitting.
Brillman: I think it’s perfect. It’s fancy I’ll tell you that.
Justice: I thought the Army one would be like a macaroni and cheese MRE. It’s reliable. [Laughs] But a grilled cheese sandwich? Hell yeah, I’m on board.
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