The Veteran's Disability Benefits Commission reported their findings on October 3, 2007. Last week I looked at the overall report; which appears to support all veterans at a level sorely needed. My major concern, as is shared by many of my fellow Veteran Service Officers, that the recommendations require a funding level that our executive branch has yet to even acknowledge as something it would consider. That then raises the question as to whether any of the recommendations will ever be implemented. Nevertheless, let us look at five of the 113 recommendations from three points of view.
What Causes What We Can Claim
: Establish registries of service members and veterans based on exposure, deployment, and disease histories, and
: DoD and VA should establish and implement mechanisms to identify, monitor, track, and medically treat individuals involved in research and other activities that have been classified and are secret.
As the 3 million plus In-Country Vietnam Veterans can attest (along with a variety of other veteran groups), military service in a particular location or during a particular era can easily result in a condition that merits a service connection award. Further, as property of the military we veterans have participated, often not knowingly, in a variety of different medical research programs. Using my own boot camp experiences in 1967 - my company of approximately 80 individuals was broken down into three or four groups, with each group being injected with a different medicine. When I asked what was going on I was told to shut up, stay in line, and just do as I was told. The fact that sticks in my mind to this day, that each group did not get a shot from each of the different medicines. I wonder why and what that was.
How We Know What We Can Claim
: VA should review the current duty to assist process and develop policy, procedures, and communications that ensure that they are efficient and effective from the perspective of the veteran. VA should consider amending Veterans Claims Assistance Act letters by including all claim-specific information to be shown on the first page and all other legal requirements would be reflected, either on a separate form or on subsequent pages. In particular, VA should use plain language in stating how the claimant can request an early decision in his or her case.
While this just scratches the surface, at least it's a beginning. A week doesn't go by, and in some cases a day, where a veteran that I'm assisting doesn't say to me that they didn't know that they were entitled to "that." Or, that they didn't know the way to get something they knew they were entitled to was to follow "those" procedures. From another experience of my own, and when I became wheelchair-bound, I had worked closely with the unit within the VA at Northport that dealt with all things wheelchair related. Roll forward about four or five months and I'm talking to another veteran in a wheelchair who asks me did I have a van and is it being retrofitted. What I learned from that veteran, there was grant money that would retrofit a van to make it handicapped accessible. Going back to the wheelchair unit I asked one of the clerks did they know about the grant to retrofit a van. His response was yes. I then asked him when he was going to tell me about this. His response... was just to look at me and smile.
The Claims Cycle Itself
: Improve claims cycle time by: establishing a simplified and expedited process for well documented claims, using best business practices and maximum feasible use of information technology; and implementing an expedited process by which the claimant can state the claim information is complete, and waive the time period (60 days) allowed for further development. Congress should mandate and provide appropriate resources to reduce the VA claims backlog by 50 percent within 2 years, and
: DoD should provide an authenticated electronic DD 214 to VA.
This is one of the veterans' worse problems. Again using my personal experience, in May of 2006 I was awarded a claim. Here it is October 2007 and I have yet to see a dollar of that award. When I ask what its status is, the response from the VA is something along the lines, what are you worrying about - as soon as it's processed you'll be paid retroactively. Therein lies the rub. Forget the fact that many claims languish for more than a year without the award decision being made. Even after an award is granted it can take months, or over a year, before the veteran actually sees their award. It has been suggested, as I wrote about in a previous column, the VA should process claims along the lines of IRS - the claim should be submitted and processed as if it is correct as submitted. One element that would be necessary (if this suggestion would have any chance of working the way it could), the veteran must be submitting authenticated documentation. Why. I know of several cases where a claim submitted and awarded over a decade ago was found to be fraudulent, only after years of monthly payments to the "veteran."
A Final Thought
Using only five of the 113 recommendations one can begin to see the complexities of veteran benefit issues. Yet the solution, regardless of its specifics, has at its root one requirement I fear will not be easily overcome; it's going to cost more than a few dollars.
This Week's Not Commented on Topic
VA MEMO MAKES OLDER VETS "SECOND-CLASS VETS" -- Vice Adm. Daniel L. Cooper, undersecretary for benefits in the Department of Veterans Affairs -- in a memo obtained by the El Paso Times -- instructs the department's employees to put Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans at the head of the line, thus it creates a two-tiered system of veterans health care, putting veterans of the global war on terror at the top and making every one else -- from World War I to the first Gulf War -- "second-class veterans," according to some veterans advocates. What concerns the veterans advocates most is that this priority designation isn't reserved just for seriously injured combat veterans.
--- Regards, Walt Schmidt