Lawmakers, Veterans Groups Discuss Benefits Backlog

Last week, Democratic and Republican members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs met with Chairman Bob Filner to talk with 40 veterans’ service organizations to discuss priorities for Congress’ second session.

The roundtable marked the second time during the 111th Congress that the committee has met with veterans’ advocates to discuss issues facing the nation’s veterans and plan how to best solve veterans’ problems.

Filner said, “The purpose of today’s meeting is to build upon the successes of the first session and collaborate on how we can better serve our veterans and wounded warriors going forward.”

Chairman Filner detailed the committee’s priorities, which include ensuring adequate VA budgets for the next two years. Following the passage of advance funding legislation, Congress will approve a budget for Fiscal Year 2011 and 2012.

Veterans for Common Sense presented its legislative and policy goals for 2010 for veterans and families.

“Our comments were received well, and several of the representatives spoke with me later; Chairman Filner said they would be reviewing all our concerns and he hoped to take action,” said Paul Sullivan, VCS spokesperson. The group called for streamlining how the VA processes post-traumatic stress disorder disability claims.

“At the hearing, essentially we mentioned that our top priority remains the one million veterans waiting for disability benefits, as reported by ’60 Minutes,'” Sullivan said. “And (we) thought that there should be two solutions. The first was to break up the single office in each state and add in-place claims processors at medical facilities. Currently they’re not in medical facilities.”

Sullivan added that a couple of states have two claims processing offices.

“Nearly all communication between claims offices and veterans is done by mail. We want to change that,” Sullivan said. “We want veterans to be able to meet with VA claims processors just like retirees can sit down and have an amicable conversations with Social Security claims processors.”

The second solution that VCS presented was to streamline the PTSD claims. “Here’s what we know: There is new scientific research that links deployment to a war zone to development of PTSD, and VA is in the process of finalizing new regulations to fix that so that veterans get faster PTSD disability benefits,” Sullivan said.

In addition, VCS urged the Veterans Administration to fight the stigma that many veterans attach to mental health issues so that veterans with PTSD will want to seek treatment, and therefore hopefully reduce the worsening suicide epidemic. Veterans for Common Sense also called for more research for both treatment and benefits for 175,000 ill Gulf War veterans.

The veterans group also called for support for HR 466, which was introduced by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) last year and provides more flexibility to let employers and veterans seek mental health treatment by taking time off from work.

Filner discussed the need to reconcile health care and benefits legislation with the Senate. The House passed legislation to provide support for veteran caregivers, improve access and care options for female veterans, prevent veteran homelessness, provide better insurance options, increase disabled veteran housing grants, and strengthen reintegration programs for returning veterans.

Chairman Filner reminded veterans of the committee’s commitment to fix the claims processing system, restructure the VA for the 21st century, conduct oversight of VA spending and monitor progress of the post-9/11 GI Bill.

Participants discussed the priorities of each of the 40 different veteran advocacy organizations. Many discussed how the disability claims backlog impacts veterans while they are most vulnerable; the lengthy wait for some veterans’ disability claims has contributed to financial problems and a domino effect that can result in economic turmoil from which some veterans never recover.

Additional issues addressed at the meeting included caregiver needs, the importance of strong reintegration programs, and the immediate need for greater VA outreach to alert veterans of available benefits and programs.

Veterans’ claims and case management were hot topics last week when the House Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, led by Chairman Harry Mitchell (D-Arizona), held a hearing to evaluate social work case management and how the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs cooperate to support wounded veterans during the transition back to civilian life.

“Time and again, we have heard from our returning service members, expecting a smooth transition back to the lives they once lived, only to find themselves lost in a complex and frustrating bureaucracy,” Mitchell said. “It is imperative that VA and DoD make certain our veterans are receiving the best possible care available, provide veterans with the services and resources they have earned, and most importantly, work together to ensure that these earned benefits are seamlessly delivered.”

Veteran Sean Johnson testified about a March 2006 mortar attack that left him with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury. He described a system that places the burden on the veteran to fight for specialized services and independently navigate the medical evaluation system.

“It is unreasonable that an injured soldier who is not able to be rehabilitated for deployment must wait more than two years for his medical review board to be completed,” Johnson said. “I am disheartened that soldiers are brushed aside in medical holding units or at home waiting for repeated exams and claims decisions. After years of work on electronic exchange of medical computer records, it doesn’t seem to be any closer than before.”

Representatives from veteran advocacy organizations reported that many veterans have trouble getting their military records sent to the VA following their discharge, resulting in injured veterans and their family members copying and delivering records themselves. They also reported a lack of immediate screening and proactive treatment for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Filner said, “I am very concerned that the support system for our service members and veterans is stretched thin and allows wounded warriors to fall through the cracks. As the country prepares for a military surge, it must also prepare for a surge of veterans. Today’s hearing shows that gaps remain and there is no real sense of direction on how to solve this problem.”

Filner added, “Congress continues to pass laws and provide oversight, but until the military commits to proactive medical screenings for traumatic brain injury, lifetime electronic medical records are a reality and the VA actively seeks to counsel veterans in need, injured veterans will continue to be harmed because they cannot access the care and benefits they need. We can – and must – do better.”

Separately, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will have a hearing about the VA’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget on February 10.

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request calls for a record $8.8 billion for military family support programs, First Lady Michelle Obama told military spouses at Bolling Air Force Base.

The request represents a 3 percent increase over current funding and includes more money for counseling and support for both active-duty and reserve-component spouses and families, she said at the Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives Club annual luncheon.

The budget request includes $1.3 billion to reduce shortages in military child care and ensure that its quality remains high, and it also increases funding for youth programs, she said.

In addition, based on input from military spouses, the request will include $84 million for spousal career development, the First Lady said, including tuition assistance and a federal internship program.