The key to VetsFirst’s national success in helping veterans obtain VA benefits is the dedication of its staff and personal approach to each issue.
By Tom Scott
When you talk with Keith Reimers, regional service director for United Spinal Association’s VetsFirst (www.vetsfirst.org) program, one thing becomes acutely clear, he takes a great deal of pride in helping veterans receive the benefits and assistance they deserve. For more information on the VetsFirst program, please visit www.vetsfirst.org. Veterans who need counseling about VA claims and benefits, please submit a request to Ask VetsFirst at: http://helpdesk.vetsfirst.org/
Keith, a veteran of the United States Air Force and former staff sergeant in the Persian Gulf War, has been on board with United Spinal for over 17 years and is the driving force behind expanding the VetsFirst program on a national level; its mission: to directly serve the veterans and the military community by assisting and representing veterans and their family members in claims for benefits and services before the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, other Federal and state agencies, and providing legal representation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
“I can get up to 15 inquiries a day from concerned veterans and their family members either by phone or through our ‘Ask VetsFirst’ (http://helpdesk.vetsfirst.org) program, which is a new Web-based service that gives veterans an opportunity to get assistance with benefits-related inquiries faster and more efficiently.
Each inquiry can take weeks to months to resolve, especially when it involves ongoing VA claims. Providing an online service greatly diminishes the time required and allows us to assist a greater number of veterans,” said Reimers, a native of North Tonawanda, New York who has been awarded numerous decorations during his military career, including the Southwest Asia Campaign Medal with two bronze stars.
According to Reimers, many inquiries involve basic information such as how to file claims or how to approach VA compensation exams. However, some questions he admits can get very complex, as the VA claims process is often confusing and frustrating.
“We try to offer more than the usual generic, short responses to questions. I don’t like to work that way. When a vet or their family member contacts me with an issue, it’s important to make them feel comfortable, put them at ease, and let them tell their story. Although it may take longer, a personal approach always works better,” Reimers said.
In addition to providing individual support and counseling services, VetsFirst offers timely news and information across the spectrum of issues presently impacting veterans. Although there are a multitude of resources just a click away through the VetsFirst Web site’s Knowledge Books — including guides on self-help, state benefits, separating from the military; and exclusive information on military health care, and VA funding and compensation –there is always an expert available to answer the tough questions.
“That’s primarily where the Ask VetsFirst portion of our Web site comes into play,” Reimers added, explaining that this is one of the key features that make the program so different from those offered by other service organizations and an invaluable tool.
Ask VetsFirst allows visitors to submit questions on any aspect of veterans’ benefits using an online submission form. A VetsFirst trained national service officer or para-legal will then respond with information and resources to help resolve the inquiry.
“The program has really started to take off. We are always adding exclusive content to the Web site, to increase the knowledge-base available to veterans. And we are making incredible progress on a national level. There are many veterans that are truly appreciative of what we are doing. And that makes the job extremely satisfying,” Reimers said.
When he is not filing claims or answering inquiries at United Spinal’s field office at the Naples Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Naples, Florida, Keith is visiting VA and private sector hospitals, meeting with returning servicemen and women, and attending hearings on veterans issues.
Keith has been responsible for many success stories involving our Nation’s veterans over the years, including Dustin Jones, a young quadriplegic with a traumatic brain injury whose health was deteriorating while being hospitalized at the spinal cord injury unit at the Augusta VA Medical Center. Dustin’s parents, Rick and Mary Jones sought assistance from VetsFirst hoping it could help his situation. They described how Keith went above and beyond their expectations to ensure their son received quality care.
“Keith was instrumental in getting us [initially] from the University of New Mexico hospital to the Augusta VA and then, when the care was not at all optimal for spinal cord injury, guided us in getting our son to the Tampa VA where he should have been in the first place. He had the representative in the Tampa area check on the status of getting my son a bed and continued to monitor the progress of the move. When we did finally arrive, the representative was there to make sure we had what we needed and that all was OK. We felt safe, cared for, and secure knowing they were there for any questions or needs we had. They always shared what the VA was supposed to offer and made sure they did,” said Mary Jones.
Jones believes that if it wasn’t for Keith’s intervention into her son’s treatment and rehabilitation, his outcome may have been a lot worse.
“Dustin left Augusta with a 10-inch bedsore all the way to the bone. They had no knowledge of vent rehab/weaning and the nurses/therapists seemed to be afraid to move him… which left him with a right arm contracture. As a result he has had a cast for the past 3 months trying to get it straight again so he can begin rehab…Dustin’s doctor, although nice was, an 83 year-old pediatrician,” she added.
“After getting to Tampa we realized there is a whole subspecialty in medicine for SCI. Knowing that and looking back at some of the treatments/surgery he received, we realized they had no idea of what they were dealing with. Keith told us that it may take a long time, but he felt that we should be reimbursed for the $9,500 flight from Augusta to Tampa. We appreciate all that he has done as well as the others we met in Tampa. If I had known that Tampa VA had one of the best facilities for Spinal Cord Injury care, I would never have wanted them to move Dustin to Augusta…He lost valuable recovery time. At first he was bitter about it, but I assured him that because of this [situation] and Keith, many others in the future would hopefully get better care. He has seemed to let the past go and looks forward to moving forward,” Jones said.
Joy Starke, a resident of the Bronx, New York and veteran of the U.S. Army who served from 1996-1999, was introduced to VetsFirst through a VA workshop at Lehman College. At the time, Starke was dealing with numerous medical complications that had persisted after her discharge from active duty. She had undergone 7 different foot procedures, including reconstructive surgery, as well as treatment for a cyst. Starke was receiving 10 percent disability compensation from the VA and had petitioned for an increase, but was denied.
“I had basically given up hope after being denied by the VA. I emailed VetsFirst to see if they could do something and I got a response from Keith in less than 2 hours. He dove right in to my case and referred me to a representative at the Manhattan field office,” she said. “VetsFirst is now petitioning on my behalf for an increase in disability compensation.”
Starke explains, “The VA is supposed to help veterans in need of treatment and care, but this may not always be the case, that’s why it is important to get assistance from a third party. We all need a voice to fight for us. If I knew about VetsFirst when I initially petitioned the VA I may have already received compensation. The staff has been extremely thorough and is always following up and offering information on the claims process.”
Currently, Keith and Len Selfon, senior vice president of VetsFirst, are in the process of recruiting and training more national service officers to assist in further expanding the program, so that their program can help other veterans struggling to receive VA compensation and benefits.
For more information on the VetsFirst program, please visit www.vetsfirst.org. Veterans who need counseling about VA claims and benefits, please submit a request to Ask VetsFirst at: http://helpdesk.vetsfirst.org/