Thursday, February 21, 2008

Agency chief says help is on way; senator, vets tell of inadequate services

Senator Tester and Sec Peake face veterans

Of The Gazette Staff

Limited by staff and space, veterans' health care services in Montana fall short, said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who brought U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake to Billings to meet with local veterans.

"What I'm getting at is the staff and the square footage is a big issue," Tester said Wednesday. "That's not just here. It's the same in Great Falls and other places."

Tester and Peake got a firsthand look at the tight cramped quarters of the Veterans Affairs Primary Care Center in Billings. Roughly a decade old, the facility at 2345 King Ave. W. is no longer big enough to accommodate services for Billings-area veterans. Plans to relocate to a larger facility are in the works, but the VA Primary Care Center is also short on staff members.

Veterans speaking to Tester and Peake said phone calls to the VA Primary Care Center sometimes go unanswered for half an hour. Getting in to see a counselor about war-related stress can take days. Peake said help was on the way in the form of more community-based outreach clinics. The VA is rolling out 24 new clinics nationwide, including in Havre, Cut Bank and Lewistown. The administration is also hiring 3,100 more people to process veteran care claims. The average time for processing claims is 185 days, and only one in 10 claims is filed correctly, according to the Veterans Benefits Administration.

The secretary said shortening the processing times to 145 days should improve service for veterans, many of whom described VA health care as slow or unresponsive. Part of that time reduction hinges on scrapping a paperwork-heavy claims system that has gone relatively unchanged since World War II. Peake said he wants the VA to convert to a "paperless system" in which files are computer-based and more easily processed.

Last week, the Veterans Benefits Administration told Congress that 650,000 benefits claims awaited processing.

There's a debate about how many claims will still be made by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration estimates that 33,690 new veterans will enter the system, but the majority of staff for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, on which Tester serves, expects 200,000 claims by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

If the committee is correct, the president's budgeted amount for new claims could leave funding short for about 150,000 veterans.

The Senate has also proposed an extension to health care benefits for veterans leaving service. The cost of the health care depended on a veteran's income and severity of injury, but no veteran could be denied coverage for his or her first five years after service. The VA supports the proposal, which passed the Senate in December.

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan "will be able to access health care for five years instead of two," Peake said.

Tester brought Peake to Montana so the secretary could see challenges of veterans' health care in rural areas first hand. Peake, who announced the creation of a rural health advisory committee, said some areas of Montana went beyond rural and were actually frontier.

Nationwide, an estimated 38 percent of veterans live in rural areas. On Tuesday, Peake toured VA facilities in rural eastern Washington. The tour was a first for Peake, who has been in office less than three months. During his December confirmation hearing, the former Army surgeon general assured senators that he would look into complaints of understaffing at rural facilities.

"This advisory committee, working within the highest levels of VA, will ensure the department remains responsive to the health care needs of rural veterans," Peake said.

Wednesday, Peake said the VA needed to evolve to meet the needs of young veterans returning home from war. Adequate mental-health care for returning veterans, particularly troops suffering from head injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, has been a point of debate almost since troops were deployed to Afghanistan in 2001. Roughly one-third of all veterans seek treatment for mental-health problems. Veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as other Americans.

The need for better mental-health care was later driven home during a town hall meeting, in which the father of a suicidal Marine living in Billings pleaded for the release of his son's military records so the young man could get help. Trembling and near tears, the man could barely make his request.

Other veterans attending the meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn spoke of lost paperwork or grueling cross-state drives for treatment. Although dozens of veterans lined up to speak to Tester and Peake, none had served in the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. A few praised VA care in Montana, but others, like Army veteran Brandie Strong, were highly critical.

Strong, 35, spent one year in the Army during the Persian Gulf War era. Barely into her commitment, she became ill and eventually lapsed into a coma. Eventually, she needed a liver transplant, and a future kidney transplant seems imminent. Since then, Strong has traveled extensively for VA care. Her transplant doctor is in Colorado. She sees a VA dermatologist in Sheridan, Wyo. For female-specific problems, she must travel to Fort Harrison in Helena. Until recently, her per-mile reimbursement from the VA was minimal.

"It was 11 cents a mile, but they just increased it to 28 cents," said Strong, who asked Peake and Tester why veterans traveling for medical attention didn't get the congressional rate of 48 cents.

Neither man responded.

When Air Force veteran Dave Bovee filled in the sign-up sheet at the front door, he identified himself as "I'm the one not killed yet by the VA."

He told Tester and Peake that his medical condition had been misdiagnosed by the VA. An asthma sufferer and diabetic, Bovee said the VA later canceled his prescriptions. Getting his benefits back was a real fight.

"In the months it took to get my benefits from your incompetents, it was always my fault," Bovee said, wheezing.

As for the absence of new veterans among the 20 or so people who spoke, Tester said he thinks soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan were not ready to weigh in on health care.

"I think they're just happy to be home," Tester said.

Another reason for the no-show could have been wariness among new veterans to use the VA, said Chelly Harada. A veteran service officer in Wolf Point, Harada said a lot of American Indian vets are influenced by VA stories told by their fathers and grandfathers.

Many of the new veterans who could use the VA are opting to use Indian health care instead, Harada said. Consequently, Indian health care is strapped for cash and administrators are wishing American Indian vets would use the VA's services.


I see the Indian health care administrators are like VA administrators, they want vets to use Medicare rather than the VA so they can pass the health care costs on to another federal agency. I am always harrassed by the VA about my lack of Medicare, I am 100% SC why should they expect me to pay for Medicare's services when I "earned" and paid for my VA healthcare when I became totally disabled thru my military service?

While the VA is touting the new 28 cnets amile versus the old 11 cemts, they ignore the fact that they raised the retake from 6 dollars per trip the VA center keeps from the milage rate to 15.00 dollars per trip so in most cases the raise becomes a moot point, the VA is just keeping 15 dollars rather than 6, so how does the veterans get ahead, gas prices are still higher?

Why is only one claim in ten being prepared properly? We are told we need a VA approved veterans Service Officer and most veterans use the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) the American Legion (AL) The Purple Heart Association, or any of the other numerous groups allowed by the VA, so are these experts messing the veterans over by filing the claims improperly? The veterans don't have the expertise to file these massive claims papers nor do they know which is the correct medical condition to file for under the massive CFR and the way they break down health problems, filing for heart problems is not enough, exactly what is the problem, a stroke, hypertension, stents, triple bypass, what is the ejection faction, are you employable or not, are you in a power chair due to poor heart function etc.You think the VA would assist a veteran that disabled, nope, deny and keep denying until the veteran gets lucky and finds a VSO that knows what they are doing.

Picking a VSO is kind of like hiring a lawyer out of the phone book and playing the lottery at the same time hope you pick a winner, or the next few years of your life can and will be hell.

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