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New computer network designed to better serve San Diego veterans

The website, sandiegounited.org, is intended to be an open door to a network of groups that provide services such as housing, job training and mental health counseling.

SCREENSHOT VIA SANDIEGOUNITED.ORG

By JEN STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 6, 2017

Veterans advocates on Monday unveiled a new web portal with hopes of using the technology to help San Diego County’s vets navigate the often-confusing world of social services.

The website, sandiegounited.org, is intended to be an open door to a network of groups that provide services such as housing, job training and mental health counseling.

“Rather than saying, ‘Here are the numbers to these six organizations, best of luck,’ … this is putting the onus for on us as the service providers,” said Gabe Kendall of 211 San Diego, one of the nonprofit organizations shepherding the project.

Here’s how it is supposed to work: A veteran goes to sandiegounited.org and enters personal information, including what services are being sought, onto a one-page form. Once the veteran hits the “submit” button, the technology is supposed to push the information out to the 19 participating groups to act upon.

Those include Veterans Village of San Diego, Physician Advocates for Veterans, Reboot career workshops and Interfaith Community Services.

The San Diego region’s veterans support groups have never been connected in this digital way. Also, how they perform as a whole has never measured, said Bill York, executive vice president of 211 San Diego.

Down the road, the University of San Diego’s Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research plans to analyze the data from the local project.

“There are so many great programs, and we are all working our own individual case management platforms,” York said.

“So Sergeant Smith, whether he really got to the provider, whether he successfully received the services — and six months later, has he moved to a more thriving (place.) Those are all things that are going unmeasured now,” he added.

The digital backbone of this effort comes from a four-year-old New York software company called Unite Us. The firm was founded by post-9/11 veterans who said they were tired of seeing people fall through the cracks of the health and human services spectrum.

Co-founder Taylor Justice, a former Army officer, said he saw the “exhausting and fragmented” resource market for himself after he left the military in 2007. That includes the local region.

“All of the community providers in San Diego were on their own systems and silos and unable to communicate with each other outside of phone calls and emails,” Justice said Monday. “Now, they are on a common system where they can connect the dots and send to each other simultaneously.”

The United Us platform is operating in 15 locations nationwide under various names. In North Carolina, it is NCServes. In Chicago, it is the Joining Forces Initiative.

None of that would be possible without a secure network. The strong federal medical privacy law, commonly known by the acronym HIPAA, means that agencies have to safeguard a patient’s information. To use sandiegounited.org, a veteran has to agree to allow the information provided to be shared among the agencies in the network.

The San Diego project is being funded for 18 months with $90,000 from the San Diego Association of Governments’ Veterans Transportation and Community Living Initiative and the Patriot’s Connection at the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation.

San Diego County is home to an estimated 250,000 veterans of all generations, including roughly 30,000 who served during the era of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

San Diego United organizers are looking for more social service agencies to join. The target is 60 providers in the network, and 19 have signed up.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is playing a role. If a veteran has not yet applied for VA health care or benefits, the San Diego United network can assist with the referral.

The Defense Department is not yet a player, York said.

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