Deploy VBA Staff at All VHA Facilities to Reform Broken Claims System

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VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki greets Alan Babin, U.S. Army veteranVBA staff should be on the ground at All Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Facilities

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) suffers from a lack of resources, not news.

Neither is the obstruction, confusion and frustration encountered in trying to obtain deserved disability benefits.

One reform is placing Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) staff at all VHA facilities, as suggested by Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, (and not embedded neocons, but VBA staff who think their job is to help deliver and not obstruct benefits).

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki should enact this reform tomorrow!

Then hire more staff from real advocacy groups [not the damn VFW and other VSO groups] and get these guys out to the 1,400 VHA facilities around the country.

Get VBA staff on the ground now where they are needed. And we know fully well what to do with the backlog. A lot of people believe in you, Gen. Shinseki; don’t let us down.

by Pamela Walck

Veterans waiting years onbenefits say Veterans Benefits Administration nesds reform, action not talk

Savannah, Georgia—Veterans waiting years for benefits say Veterans Benefits Administration needs improvements, reform

March 28, 2010, Savannah, Georgia (Savannah Morning News) – Michael Santiago lives with daily reminders of how his budding military career came to an abrupt end March 22, 2002. That was the day another soldier’s bullet ripped through his left arm, narrowly missing his heart but puncturing his lungs and damaging his spinal cord before exiting his back.

The shooter, placed under Santiago’s command a day earlier, then ran outside the 226th Quartermasters Battalion’s building at Fort Stewart and turned the gun on himself.  The incident has etched scars across Santiago’s body and mind. The left side of his body is paralyzed, and he has breathing problems. He struggles with bowel and bladder incontinence. He has post-traumatic stress disorder.

Santiago, at the age of 30, has been given a 100 percent disability rating from the Veterans Administration and uses an electric scooter to get around.

And like generations of veterans before him, he never expected to fight his own country to receive benefits through the VA.

“I never thought it was going to be like this,” said the Batas, Puerto Rico, native who enlisted as a fresh-faced 18-year-old newlywed.

The former Army sergeant was only recently approved for a home improvement grant from the Veterans Benefits Administration – seven years after being honorably discharged due to his injuries and only after being denied three times for a program he was qualified to receive.

Santiago said he is still waiting to get the funding so he can pay a contractor to make the much-needed renovations to his Hinesville home.

“We’re still fighting, but it’s a fight for our rights,” he said. “It gets inside our heads pretty bad, and it gets frustrating.”

It was a mounting frustration over years of delay in obtaining benefits that led Santiago to join a group of disgruntled veterans from the area who picketed the Savannah VA clinic on Montgomery Crossroad earlier this month.

But veterans’ advocates say this understandable angst was slightly misdirected: The medical clinic, one of 1,400 run nationwide by the Veterans Health Administration, is merely a depository for benefits applications and appeals that are then mailed to the Veterans Benefits Administration.

The VBA, a separate entity that’s part of the mammoth federal system, is tasked with providing programs and services aimed at improving a veteran’s lifestyle once service-related disabilities are identified.

Generally confusing

“Unfortunately, while most people know where to go for medical care … most veterans don’t know where to go to obtain disability benefits,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit veterans’ advocacy group. “And there is good reason for that: Typically, there is only one location that provides veterans with non-medical benefits and in the state of Georgia, that place is in Atlanta.”

In fact, he said, aside from California, Texas and New York, the VBA offices are exclusively located in federal buildings in each individual state’s capital.

Sullivan contends this “ivory tower” approach to benefits is “wrong.”

As a result, Veterans for Common Sense has been lobbying Congress and the VA, asking them to break up the centralized benefits administration’s employees and relocating them inside each of the VA’s 1,400 medical facilities across the country.

“We feel there is confusion among veterans,” Sullivan said. “The VA has been misleading, to both veterans and the American public, and we are demanding that it stops.”

It’s a confusion that persists locally, too.

Ask most local veterans where to go to file benefits claims and they will say the Savannah VA clinic.

Which is true, in part.

It is where many veterans obtain benefits applications and submit their documents with the help of volunteers from the Disabled American Veterans Chapter No. 8 of Savannah or the assistance of state employees with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But it’s a free service often limited to word-of-mouth advertising.

“A lot of veterans have no idea what they are entitled to or how to go about to obtain benefits,” said Garlon Penland, commander of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter No. 46, in Hinesville. “Times have gotten worse and people need the help, that’s the reason for a lot of our (new) patients.”

Penland said when he first took over command of the Hinesvillechapter, there were only two service officers certified to assist veterans with claims. Office hours were limited to two days a week.

Five years later, his group has 11 certified volunteers working five days a week withasmanyas 60 claims a month.

“It’s much better than it has been in past years,” Penland said. “Things are going a lot smoother now.”

Strapped for volunteers

In Savannah, two Disabled American Veterans service officers hold regular hours three days a week at the Montgomery Crossroad clinic.

“I think most people will file a claim on their own the first time, with the attitude that the VA has been taking care of me and my health for a while, they have all my medical records from when I was in the service, so I can do this,” said Frank Mullis, one of two volunteers at the clinic who see about 10 clients per day. “But there is a good chance they will be denied the first time.”

Many veterans find themselves stuck in lengthy appeals processes because paperwork is largely handled through the mail or hand-written documents are lost or incomplete.

Mullis admits his chapter could use more volunteers.

And after eight years assisting veterans, he has seen a high burnout rate.

“Seeing the needs of these veterans and not being able to take it to the next level is hard,” he said. “Or to see grown men weep in your office like a baby, men who were at one time proud and served their country. And to know the obvious reason he is crying is because of problems linked to his military career, well, there’s a huge burnout factor for our service officers.”

Mullisargues that if Americans can file for disability withthefederal Social Security office and get an answer in less than six months, the same should be possible for veterans with the VA.

A call for reform

But Sullivan, the national veterans’ advocate, wants to take it further.

“You have service officers doing work the Veterans Benefits Administration should be doing,” he said. “These veterans groups should be commended, they are trying very hard as volunteers to fill in the gaps. But as our veterans continue to age, many of them don’t have the time or ability to do this.

“The VBA should have and must have claims staff inside every medical facility,” he said.

Most veterans – including Sullivan, Penland and Mullis – agree the VHA does a good overall job of meeting the increasingly wide range of medical needs among America’s veterans, from World War II era to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“However, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the people in charge of the paperwork, that agency in the VA is broken,” Sullivan said.

His group argues the time for reform is now – before an estimated 2.2 million veterans begin filing claims in the next few years, a majority of whom are younger veterans.

Likewise, Sullivan contends the benefits application needs to be simplified. Veterans for Common Sense believe the form should be a single sheet.

The group also wants veterans to have the option of legal representation.

“Veterans, especially those with traumatic brain injuries and psychological conditions, should be able to retain an attorney when they file a claim against the VA,” Sullivan said. “A young veteran coming back from war could live another 50 years. They could be receiving disability payments and free medical care that could be worth $1 million over their lifetime.

“Would you file a lawsuit against the government by yourself if it was worth $1 million or would you want a one-page form and a lawyer to help you?”

A broken system

Mullis agrees the system is broken, but worries Veterans for Common Sense’s call for reform might go too far.

He points to Santiago’s recent experience and says it is a “textbook” example of what veterans discover when dealing with the Atlanta-based VBA.

“There is no way anyone can justify that,” Mullis said. “Either you are eligible or not.

“The thing is, when (VBA employees) do their (application) evaluations, they give me the impression that they have blinders on. If there is no direct avenue between ‘A’ and ‘B,’ they don’t approve it,” he said. “But we all know the gray area is what connects everything.”

As a Vietnam veteran, a service officer and the son of a combat veteran, Mullisknowsa thing or two about dealing with the VBA.

“My father was a World War II veteran who got benefits claims approval the day he died,” he said. “He had lung cancer and PTSD, and they denied him for years and years, so he got fed up.

“Finally he agreed to let me pick it up, and we fought it for five years.”

Mullis said it’s a shame his father died before the VA agreed his health problems were directly related to his military service inside the belly of a bomber plane.

“If you were to take a survey from all veterans, they would say it is the claims process that’s broken,” Mullissaid. “There are programs designated … for you, if your disabilities are service connected, but getting to that point with your claims is the most frustrating part.”

How to get help for psychological injuries from military experience

Employees at the Savannah Veterans Center say theirs could be one of the best-kept secrets in town.

Monday through Friday, the veterans’ center offers free group and individual counseling services to veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries from combat and sexual assault.

“There are some folks who probably don’t know we are here,” said Jack Ford, the center’s office manager. “Because of other agencies with similar services, we don’t advertise.”

In fact, aside from word-of-mouth, Ford said the only advertisement the Veterans Center receives comes from information VA officials give soldiers leaving the military at nearby Fort Stewart or Hunter Army Airfield.

The facility is run by the Georgia Department of Veterans Affairs and is independent of the Savannah VA clinic.

Ford said the five-member staff focuses exclusively on mental health counseling and military sexual trauma counseling. All services are free.

The center currently serves about 250 veterans each month, adding an average of 30 new clients a month.

“Services can be obtained just by walking into the center,” Ford said. “Our budget is set by Congress and as long as you were in the military and exposed to combat trauma, it makes you eligible for services.”

The center also offers office space for civic organizations assisting veterans in benefits claims.

“The fact that they are veterans makes the eligible for our services,” Ford said. “But I equate it to like a person being lost. The person lost, as far as they are concerned, they may not know they are lost.

“We have vets come in from the Korean War, they know we are here, but in most cases, they don’t think they need it until someone points it out to them.”

The Savannah Veterans Center is located at 321 Commercial Drive, Savannah. For more information and office hours, call 912-961-5800.

OTHER AVENUES TO HELP

— Veterans in the Hinesville area can obtain free assistance filing benefits applications from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday at the Disabled American Veterans Chapter No. 46, 1113 Ga. 84, or can call at 912-368-2546.

— Veterans in the Savannah area can obtain free assistance with benefits claims from volunteers with the Disabled American Veterans Chapter No. 8 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays at the Savannah VA clinic off Montgomery Crossroad.

— The Georgia Department of Veterans Affairs also has office hours at the same clinic from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday.

— Savannah-area veterans interested in becoming certified to assist others in benefits claims can contact Frank Mullis at  912-661-3759 for additional information.

— To contact the VA Suicide Hotline, dial toll-free 800-273-8255

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