VA now taking health benefits applications by phone (MilitaryTimes)
Veterans can now apply for Veterans Affairs health benefits over the phone. The VA published a final regulation on Monday that allows former service members to complete VA health care applications by calling 877-222-8387. The line is manned by VA employees who walk the veterans through the process, including providing them information on copayment requirements and third party insurance. Previously, VA required veterans to apply in person at a VA medical center or submitting a paper application to the department. But the system was beset with problems, creating a backlog of 847,882 applications that stretched back nearly 15 years and included submissions from more than 300,000 deceased veterans. After the VA inspector general released a report on the backlog a year ago, VA took steps to change the application process, to include removing a requirement that veterans physically sign the necessary paperwork. It also embarked on an effort to clear the backlog, starting with 30,000 combat veterans who should have automatically qualified for the benefit but were placed in the system by mistake. Veterans can continue to apply for benefits in person as well, according to the department.
Vets advocates, lawmakers fight for protection against less-than-honorable discharges (Stars and Stripes)
Veterans service organizations are pressuring lawmakers working on the National Defense Authorization Act to include an amendment protecting servicemembers with mental illness from less-than-honorable discharges. Veterans advocates and lawmakers said Tuesday at a news conference outside the Capitol that about 22,000 veterans with mental illness have received less-than-honorable discharges, called “bad paper,” since 2009. Those veterans lose out on Department of Veterans Affairs health care, education benefits and consideration for jobs. “This is a tragic situation,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. “The thing is just to get it done and get these folks the help they’ve earned and deserve.” An amendment called the Veterans Fairness Act was attached to the Senate’s passed version of the NDAA this summer with unanimous support. It would require Defense Department panels that review discharges to consider medical evidence from a veteran’s health care provider. Panels would have to review each case presuming post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or sexual assault trauma led to the discharge. Ten senators and representatives spoke Tuesday in favor of the amendment, and 49 veterans groups signed a letter of support. Peters – who introduced a bill targeting bad paper in 2015 – was optimistic that it would be attached to the final version of the defense bill. “I’m very confident we’re going to get it done, but as with everything here on Capitol Hill, you can never say it’s done until it’s done,” Peters said. “So we’re going to keep the pressure up.” Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Tyson Manker, a Marine who said he was discharged from the military after suffering from PTSD, called on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order to make the reform happen. Manker, an attorney and law professor from Illinois who is running for Morgan County state’s attorney, returned home in 2003 from a tour in Iraq, suffering from symptoms of PTSD. On leave, Manker was caught smoking marijuana, which he said he was using to self-medicate. “The Marine Corps kicked me to the curb,” Manker said Tuesday. “It turned its back on me.” Manker received an other-than-honorable discharge and was stripped of his GI Bill, Illinois Veterans Grant, signing bonus, service-related injury compensation and eligibility for VA health care. When Manker later sought to upgrade his discharge status, he discovered others with mental health conditions faced the same bureaucratic challenges. “I learned I wasn’t alone,” he said. “Tens of thousands of other volunteer servicemembers had met the same fate.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, said the bill was an important reform for military sexual assault survivors. “In too many cases when veterans suffer from trauma, including military sexual assault trauma, their psychological conditions were not properly recognized and they were given less-than-honorable discharges because of their symptoms,” Gillibrand said. The NDAA conference committee is on a tight deadline to present a final bill. The Senate is scheduled to end its session Oct. 7.
Pence asks VA to reinstate GI Bill to vets affected by ITT closure (Military.com)
Indiana Governor Mike Pence is asking the VA to provide relief to veterans who attended ITT Technical Institute which shut its doors earlier this week. The now defunct private college had its headquarters in Carmel, IN, a suburb of Indianapolis. Pence, who is Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s running mate, sent VA Secretary Robert McDonald a letter Friday, asking the VA to reinstate the GI Bill benefits of veterans affected by the closure of ITT Tech saying “We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude, and one way we show that is through the post-9/11 GI Bill, which allows these brave men and women to earn an education at the institution of their choice when they return from serving our nation.” Nearly 7,000 veterans were attending ITT Tech or planned to do so during an upcoming term, according to a recent email from Terry Jemison, a spokesperson for the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, which oversees the educational program. The total enrollment at ITT Tech’s 130 locations spread across 38 states topped 40,000. Students who were receiving federal financial aid such as a student loans or Pell Grants for attending ITT Tech may be able to have their student loans forgiven, according to the Department of Education, which oversees federal financial aid programs. However, GI Bill recipients could be left out in the cold due to current federal law. GI Bill recipients normally get a set amount of education benefits, enough to pay for 36 months of full-time training at a college or technical school. If a veteran used their GI Bill at ITT Tech for 2 years they would have essentially used 24 of those 36 months worth of education benefits. If the ITT Tech closing occurred before such a veteran received a diploma, the veteran would normally have to transfer to another school to complete their degree program. However, if another school does not accept credits for the training received at ITT Tech, the veteran’s 24 months of GI Bill benefits used at ITT Tech are essentially wasted because the training the GI Bill paid for for did not result in a degree or transferable credits. Many traditional colleges won’t accept ITT’s credits. There is no provision in the current law governing GI Bill benefits that allows the VA to reinstate benefits to a veteran affected by a school’s closing. In his letter, Pence is asking the VA to reinstate GI Bill benefits to any any veteran who has used their benefits at ITT Technical Institute during the current calendar year, and has not yet received a degree from ITT Tech. However, the VA says that existing laws prevent them from taking such action. Their website states “VA does not have the legal authority to restore any GI Bill benefits you have used to attend ITT, even if you are not finished with the classes this term.” Last year a similar situation occurred when Corinthian Colleges shut down its 28 campuses after it declared bankruptcy as a result of a $300 million government fine. Congress attempted to make changes to existing laws at that time but the legislation, which attracted bipartisan support, stalled in Congress.
Ohio lawmaker: Make Congress use VA health care (Stars and Stripes)
An Ohio Republican has a plan to spur improvements at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs — require members of Congress to abandon their private health insurance and instead use public VA health care. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, the Army Ranger who filled John Boehner’s congressional seat in June, introduced a bill Tuesday that he calls the Lead by Example Act and it would put all members of the House and Senate — as well as their staff —into the VA system of hospitals and clinics across the country. Congress is now offered the same private health insurance available to federal workers. It is widely considered high-quality coverage. Meanwhile, nearly 9 million beneficiaries are enrolled in VA health care and the system has struggled with access problems since a 2014 wait-time scandal that revealed many veterans were secretly experiencing long delays in treatment. “Overhauling the VA is no easy task and will require consistent and intentional congressional oversight for years to come,” Davidson said in a released statement. “My bill will ensure members of Congress have stakes in improving the failing program for our veterans.” Davidson also announced the proposal in a joint column with Pete Hegseth, a Fox News contributor and Army veteran. Hegseth previously led the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, which advocates for VA reform. Many of the problems revealed in the agency two years ago still remain despite efforts at an overhaul, Davidson and Hegseth argue in the National Review column published Tuesday. “Veterans are still dying as they wait for care, getting shuffled around and lost in the bureaucracy,” they wrote. Congress passed landmark $16-billion legislation in the summer of 2014 that created an emergency expansion of health care for veterans, provided new tools for firing bad employees and called for a commission to study how best to fix the agency. The Commission on Care, which was created by the 2014 law, wrapped up work in July and issued a number of recommendations. Some of them were opposed by President Barack Obama and it remains unclear how the commission’s work might be translated into changes at the country’s second largest bureaucracy. Meanwhile, there is legislation in the House and Senate that would push ahead with new VA reforms and its future is also uncertain as Congress faces the end of the session in an election year. “When this bill receives a vote, we will have a clear count of members who actually want to fix the VA — and who are willing to put their own health care on the line to do so,” Davidson and Hegseth wrote.
Asian-American Army vet joins VA’s advisory committee on minority vets (NBC News)
By the end of September, there will be roughly 305,000 Asian-American, Native-Hawaiian, and Pacific-Islander veterans in the U.S. armed services, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. But not all of them are aware of what benefits they can receive after serving their country, retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 Fang A. Wong told NBC News. “Some of them think everything is taken care of 100 percent, and that’s the assumption they go on,” said Wong, who spent 20 years in the Army until 1989. “Some of them don’t even know that hey, I can go to the VA and seek help if I need help to evaluate my condition.” Wong, 68, hopes to change that with his appointment to the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans, a 12-member panel created in 1994 that briefs Congress and the veterans affairs secretary on the department’s administration of benefits and provisions of health care, benefits, and services to the country’s 4.7 million minority veterans. U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) recommended Wong, a Bronze Star recipient, for the role. The Department of Veterans Affairs made national headlines in 2014 following revelations that at least 40 veterans died while awaiting care at a facility in Phoenix, Arizona, operated by the VA. Since then, some things have changed for the better, President Barack Obama has said, including a drop in veteran unemployment and homelessness. But suicide among veterans remains high — around 20 a day — and wait times at some hospitals are still long. Wong, who attended NBC News’ Commander-in-Chief forum last week, said he was hoping to pose a question to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or Republican nominee Donald Trump about privatizing the VA, which Wong opposes. Clinton has said “we’re going to reform and strengthen” the VA and “not privatize it,” while Trump has said “veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics,” either at a VA facility or private medical center. “Once the veterans are able to get in and receive the care provided by the doctor and staff, pretty much everybody’s happy with the service,” Wong said. “A lot of them say it’s actually better than the outside.” “The biggest problem with the VA is, well, how come I have to wait so long, how come when I submit a claim, I have to wait six months, two years, three years, or sometimes, if you’re in the wrong place, you cannot see a doctor until it’s too late,” Wong continued. Wong, who emigrated from China in 1960, said Asian-American vets sometimes face different obstacles than Pacific Islanders in obtaining services. “A lot of the folks that serve, sometimes they may still have a little bit of a language phobia or a language barrier, in a sense, that prevents them from getting the proper information or the correct information,” Wong said of Asian Americans, who by the end of this month will account for 5.7 percent of minority veterans. For Pacific Islanders, who might not be living in the contiguous U.S., finding a nearby VA medical facility can also present a challenge, Wong added. A former national commander of the American Legion, Wong didn’t say whether he thought Clinton or Trump would make a better candidate on veteran issues. He called Clinton, who served on the Armed Services Committee as a New York senator, “a friend of the veterans.” He also said he believes Trump’s “heart is there to support veterans,” adding that the real-estate mogul supported activities for vets during the 1990s. Regardless of who becomes the next president, Wong’s role on the committee, he said, will include holding town halls with veterans and giving Congress and the VA secretary advice and recommendations on benefits, programs, and services for America’s minority vets, who make up around 21 percent of all men and women who have served in the military. “Our term is for two years, and our marching orders are pretty clear,” Wong said. “It doesn’t matter who’s sitting up there. It’s our job to listen, to hear, to observe, and to show our concern, and come up with the best recommendation that’s possible within the team and present it.”