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Veterans have mixed feelings about south Texas VA

Veterans and their spouses gathered Sept. 15 at American Legion Post 439 in La Feria, Texas, to express their grievances with and share success stories about the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The hour-long session and this week’s Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) was hosted by The American Legion as part of its commitment to veterans in the wake of the VA controversy that erupted last spring in Phoenix.

Zachary Hearn, deputy director of benefits for the Legion, and Robert Walton, director of Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, answered questions from patients. Hearn welcomed the veterans, VA staff members and others by explaining why the Legion had chosen southeast Texas for a crisis center. The visit is part of the Legion’s goal, Hearn said, "to make sure veterans get the benefits they earned.”

The veterans’ concerns focused on several key areas: poor communication from VA representatives, delays in receiving appointments and individual stories of issues with treatment.

“We are committed to improving the process because our health-care system was created to keep care local,” said Walton, who oversees the six clinics that make up the south Texas VA system. He also noted that far fewer patients in La Feria need to travel hundreds of miles to San Antonio for certain procedures now.

George Burns, of La Feria, has noticed the difference. “The VA system has gotten a lot better since they had the shakeout,” said Burns, a Navy veteran of World War II. “The last visit I had, the week before last, I was there 30 minutes to get a prescription refilled. Before, I would have to go back three or four times just to get it refilled. They’re working it out.”

Butch Sparks, an alternate NECman from the Houston area, said, “I think overall the care you get in the VA is second to none. Sometimes the issue is getting into the system.”

The American Legion’s crisis center will assist veterans with issues such as VA appointment scheduling, grief counseling, benefits claims and assistance with enrolling in VA health care.

The crisis center, at Post 439, will be open from noon to 8 p.m. Sept. 16 and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 17.

Legion's Children & Youth Conference begins Friday

The American Legion’s eighth annual National Children & Youth Conference will discuss the success of internal programs and feature presentations from several outside organizations, including Young Marines, Joe Foss Institute and Children's Organ Transplant Association.

Download the three-day agenda here.

The Children & Youth Conference, Sept. 19-21, will be conducted in downtown Indianapolis at the Sheraton Indianapolis City Centre Hotel and is free and open to all interested American Legion family members.

Town hall meeting, veterans crisis center set for Oregon

The American Legion will conduct a town hall meeting Sept. 22 in White City, Ore., for veterans to discuss the quality of health care they are receiving from the local Department of Veterans Affairs Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center & Clinics (SORCC) and other VA facilities.

The town hall meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 22 at the Jackson County Roads and Parks Auditorium on 200 Antelope Rd. in White City. The meeting is open to the public and veterans are encouraged to attend, especially those affected by VA delays in medical care or benefit claims processing.

The American Legion will also operate a Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) on Sept. 23-24 at American Legion Post 15 on 100 E. Jackson St. in Medford, Ore. Hours of operation for the center are from noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesday the 23rd, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday the 24th.

Members of the Legion’s national staff, along with local Legionnaires, staff from VA facilities and volunteers from other organizations, will be on hand at the VCCC to assist veterans and their families. Services provided will include assistance with scheduling VA medical appointments, filing benefits claims, grief counseling, and help with enrollment into VA health care.

Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said the decision was made to hold the meeting in White City and crisis center in Medford “because many veterans and their families have been affected by serious delays in getting access to their health care, and in getting decisions made by VA on their disability and other benefits claims.”

The American Legion, with help from the VA and other organizations, has previously operated crisis centers for veterans and family members in several locations, including Phoenix, Fayetteville, N.C., Charlotte, N.C., El Paso, Texas, St. Louis, Fort Collins, Colo., and Baltimore.

Veterans outreach program planned for Virginia

Loudoun County’s first “Salute to Military, Veterans and Families” event is Sept. 27 in Ashburn, Va. Servicemembers and veterans will have the chance to meet with accredited representatives from The American Legion and other veterans service organizations to get help with their benefits claims and other issues related to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The event will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the auditorium of Stone Bridge High School on 43100 Hay Road. Five American Legion posts in Loudoun County will participate: Post 2001 in Ashburn, Post 150 in Sterling, Post 34 in Leesburg, Post 295 in Middleburg and Post 293 in Purcellville. The Legion posts and the Loudoun County Government are co-sponsors for the event.

Several breakout sessions will provide information on VA benefits, support programs and answers to questions from attendees. Veterans will also get help with any benefits claims they have filed, or wish to file.

Featured speakers during the program include American Legion National Vice Commander Bill Bryant; VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey; Director of National Defense University Marine BGen. Thomas Gorry; Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services Paul Galanti; State Senator Richard Black, (13th Dist.); President and CEO of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce Tony Howard, and three members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors: Scott York, Shawn Williams and Ralph Buona.

The “Salute to Military, Veterans and Families” event will also include a musical performance by the brass section of VA’s Medical Music Group.

For more information, contact Bob O’Such at (703) 723-5839/(571) 422-3993/bobbyosuch@gmail.com, or Charlie McKinney at (703) 729-1529/703-975-6422/vavets4victory@aol.com.

Legion to Congress: VA needs to improve accuracy of disability claims

The rising backlog of benefits claims appeals at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) was the focus of a House subcommittee hearing on Sept. 10.

During fiscal 2014, the number of benefits claims decisions appealed by veterans increased by more than 21,000 – bringing the current total of appeals waiting for adjudication (as of Sept. 8) to 280,297.

The American Legion submitted testimony for the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation’s hearing, “Metrics, Measurements and Mismanagement at the Board of Veterans Appeals.” Zachary Hearn, the Legion’s deputy director for benefits, was among the panelists who testified.

Through Sept. 1 of fiscal 2014, American Legion employees working at BVA handled 8,366 claims appeals. Of those, 2,330 previous denials were overturned and benefits were awarded; another 3,904 appeals were sent back (remanded) to VA regional offices for further development.

Thus, the decisions made for 74.5 percent of appeals the Legion worked on were deemed to be incorrect by BVA. While many denials were overturned, more were remanded because they were inadequately developed and prematurely denied by VA claims adjudicators.

Hearn told the subcommittee in his prepared remarks that veterans’ claims appeals “are often remanded two, three or even more times prior to having a claim finally adjudicated. Quite simply, this is unacceptable. As has been widely discussed, veterans are having to wait extended periods of time for original decisions. Combine this fact with years of waiting for a claim to be adjudicated by the BVA, and it is understandable why veterans become frustrated.”

The American Legion has repeatedly testified to Congress regarding the need for VA to improve its accuracy in the adjudication of VA disability claims at the regional offices. The Legion’s Regional Office Action Review (ROAR) program evaluates annually the quality of VA claims processing. The accuracy rates determined by ROAR are typically much lower than the 90th-percentile accuracy rates posted by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

In its testimony, The American Legion recommended that Congress pass a bill that would require VA to provide more specific information on the status of benefits claims and appeals in its online Monday Morning Workload Report. Data from the BVA needs to be broken down into grant, remand and denial rates per each VBA regional office.

“It is evident we must continue to press to ensure that VA improves its accuracy of disability claims,” Hearn said. “For the errors made today have long-lasting, deleterious effects upon our nation’s veterans and their families.”

Read The American Legion's written testimony here.

 

2014 convention resolutions on Digital Archive

At The American Legion's 96th national convention in Charlotte, N.C.,Aug. 22-28, the National Executive Committee passed 277 resolutions spanning Legion programs and priorities, both internally and externally. The resolutions are now available to view in the Legion’s online Digital Archive. See the collection here.

This year's number was much higher than the 35 resolutions passed in Houston in 2013 because the Legion restates its legislative resolutions every two years for the new Congress.

The Digital Archive continues to be updated with new collections and features. Visitors can refine or filter a search by title, date, format type and author.

Honolulu crisis center making a difference

Like she does every week, Honolulu resident Esther C. listened to host Rick Hamada on “The Veterans Movement” radio show on KHVH 830 AM. Hearing a plug for the Legion’s Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) that was coming to her area this week ended up being pretty beneficial for Esther.

After coming to the VCCC and meeting with Legion and Department of Veterans Affairs representatives, Esther found out she likely will be receiving close to $30,000 in retroactive compensation from VA. That news spurred Esther to hug Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division.

“This means a lot,” said Esther, who lives on the island of Oahu. “I was confused about what I was entitled to. That’s why I came in. VA wasn’t doing the right thing until I came in here today.”

The widow of a Vietnam War veteran who passed away from heart failure as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange, Esther eventually began receiving Death Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments after her husband’s death, but it took more than a year for them to kick in.

So she came to the crisis center and met with American Legion service officer Ron Abrams. After meeting with Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) reps, Abrams said Esther would be receiving 12 months worth of DIC payments – roughly $1,200 a month – that should have started right after Moses, her husband, had passed away. She also is expected to get more than a year’s worth of Individual Unemployability payments that her husband should have been receiving before he died.

“If Moses was here, he’d be smiling right now,” Esther said.

Esther was one of more than 60 Hawaii residents who sought help at the Legion’s VCCC, which was open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sept. 9 and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. on Sept. 10. The center also will be open from 8 a.m.-noon on Sept. 12 at the Oahu Veterans Center, located at 1298 Kukila St.

Legion staff and Department of Hawaii Legionnaires were on hand to assist in filing benefits claims. VBA and Veterans Health Administration employees also were there to review claims and schedule health-care appointments.

“By (the Legion) making this effort to come here, it shows they care to a lot to veterans – especially to guys who are having problems,” said Department of Hawaii Commander Dennis Zatecka. “I think (Hawaii) veterans feel they sometimes have to wait a long time to see a doctor. There are guys who have waited a while. That shouldn’t be.”

Zatecka said issues facing Hawaiian veterans include “getting to see a doctor – especially ones who first register with the VA. It’s them getting through all that (red tape) and getting their first visit with the doctor. And if they have a claim, it’s a process that needs to be somehow sped up.”

As a Vietnam War U.S. Navy veteran, Armando Gomez has dealt with that process. He had a heart attack three years ago that he says came about as a direct result of handling canisters of Agent Orange during his service.

“I’ve been through numerous hearings and had claim denials,” Gomez said. “I wasn’t really satisfied with the outcome. I had proof about my claim, and I was unhappy with the process I went through … to try to get my claim looked at or get me some answers. So I thought I’d come here and tell my side of the story.”

Gomez said it was good to talk to someone in person. “I was quite satisfied,” he said. “They were truly concerned with my issues and my problems. I’m glad I came here today. I got the help I was looking for. We’ll see what happens down the line with my claim.”

Samuel Hernandez came to the VCCC somewhat frustrated. While he was visiting family in the states, his wife received a call from VA to schedule a Compensation & Pension Exam. When his wife told VA that Hernandez was off the island and didn’t know for sure when he’d be home, the appointment was scheduled anyway.

Hernandez missed the appointment, which was scheduled for May. He still hasn’t seen a physician. “It’s frustrating for me,” he said. “How can I respond to them if I’m not there and they know I’m not there? I’ve got an injury that dates back to my service in Vietnam. I’m not going to let this issue go.”

Hernandez was put in contact with a VA employee who said she’d have someone call him within 24 hours to reschedule his appointment.

Tuivalentino Kaho, 24, left the Army in March. The Afghanistan combat veteran said navigating the civilian world has been difficult and that having several VA services in the same room at the same time was a big step in getting some help.

“It was very valuable,” said Kaho, who was able to arrange a health-care appointment. “(Abrams) said he could help me out. This is a whole different game when you (leave the military). Having all of this help here really helps out.”

Calvin Griffin, a U.S. Army veteran, came to the center to check on the status of his own claim and to gain information he can share with others. Griffin said he hosts a program on public access television and wants to explain the VA process during the program.

“And today, I’m going to go out and talk to everyone I can about what (the Legion is) doing,” Griffin said. “While you guys are here, there’s going to be a lot that’s going to be done for (veterans).”

Commander: 'Iraq strategy flawed, but we must destroy ISIS'

“A step in the right direction,” is how American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm characterized the president’s plan to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State terrorists.

“We understand the reluctance to commit American ground troops to more combat after years of war," Helm said. "However, we also understand the brutality and threat that this group represents. No war has ever been won without boots on the ground, and American troops are the best troops on the ground anywhere. We should not eliminate the possibility.

“While it may be necessary to take even stronger measures if the air strikes and coalition troops are unable to eliminate ISIL, we know that the American people need to be united in their support for such action. It may also be necessary for the president to receive congressional authorization if the plan escalates. Regardless, The American Legion is always united in our support for our military and any missions that our servicemembers undertake to keep America safer. The beheading of Americans, the targeting of civilians and the human rights atrocities committed by these Islamic extremists must end. If 9/11 taught us anything, it is that we must never again grow complacent to this very evil ideology.”

Helm had plenty of criticism for what he termed a failed post-Iraq war policy that helped reverse most of the gains that Americans made after years of war. “Americans should never have had to pay for the same ground twice," he said. "We have lost what was gained through the precious blood of America’s sons and daughters. To say that we will depend on other countries to re-take that land does not seem likely to produce a rosey scenario.”

OCW to treat wounded warriors in Texas

Thanks to The American Legion's Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) program, 900 wounded servicemembers and family members will be treated to a picnic and day of fun at Six Flags San Antonio on Sept. 13.

American Legion posts and Auxiliary units from around the San Antonio area will assist the servicemembers who are currently recovering at the Brooke Army Medical Center. In addition to the barbecue lunch, the servicemen and women will receive OCW backpacks, hats and water bottles.

This is the largest single-day event each year using OCW donations to provide for the nation's wounded servicemembers. Nearly $50,000 of donations will be used to provide the meal, tickets to the amusement park and gift items.

A full 100 percent of funds donated to OCW go directly toward purchasing items and providing recreational activities for recovering warriors.

Legion pushes for independent VA investigation

Richard Griffin, acting inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs, appeared at a Sept. 9 Senate hearing and defended his office’s report on the deaths of veterans at the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

Griffin and VA Secretary Robert McDonald appeared before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at a hearing on the state of VA health care. At one point, Sen. Dean Heller, R.-Nev., asked Griffin about the Aug. 26 report’s statement that investigators could not “conclusively assert the absence of timely quality care” actually caused the deaths of any patients at the Phoenix facility.

Heller asked if anyone at VA inserted that sentence into the final report. Griffin said, “No one in VA dictated that sentence go into that report, period.” He said that senior staff at VA’s Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) was responsible for including those specific words.

Once the report was issued, The American Legion called for an independent investigation of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Newly elected American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm reiterated that an outside authority needed to scrutinize the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for medical treatment.

“While VAOIG has revealed how negligent and self-serving VA management can be, the report is still being perceived by some observers as less than genuine,” Helm said. “Having an independent authority investigate the situation in Phoenix will lend more credibility to the findings.”

After the Senate hearing, McDonald called Helm on the phone to discuss the situation in Phoenix. “One of the concerns I mentioned,” Helm said, “was how fast the (Phoenix wait-time) numbers dropped on that health-care side, and I wondered if there might be some gamesmanship going on.”

McDonald replied that if The American Legion sees any evidence of such gamesmanship, he wants to know about it right away. “He’s looking for accountability and so are we,” Helm said. “I think we’re on the same page there.”

The Legion’s double-barreled aim, Helm said, continues to be reducing wait times for America’s veterans in getting access to their medical care and getting their benefits claims processed. “That’s what our Veterans Crisis Command Centers are all about – putting the Legion and VA together in one location to speed the process for veterans," Helm said. "No one who served in uniform should ever have to wait years to get their benefits.”

Helm said that McDonald “seems to be engaged in the job of caring for the veteran. He’s not there for the VA, he’s not there for the government, he’s there for the veteran, and I look forward to working with him.”

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