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Legion steps up during VA crisis

After her Department of Veterans Affairs doctor in the Phoenix VA Health Care System cancelled an appointment with her for the fifth time, Army and Air Force veteran Jennifer Jewell decided it was time to go in a different direction. So Jewell, 59, requested a change in her primary care provider.

“I didn’t find out (about the cancellation) until just moments before I had to be there,” Jewell said. “Her nurse told me she’d called in sick.”

Jewell said she filled out the proper paperwork in May and kept calling the hospital to find out if she had a new doctor. When she finally reached her former doctor’s nurse, she was told there was no record showing a change of primary care providers.

So Jewell came to the opening day of The American Legion’s Veterans Crisis Command Center at Legion Post 1 in Phoenix. “Today, they did it,” Jewell said Tuesday afternoon. “They changed my primary care provider just like that. I have an appointment now with a new doctor. I couldn’t do that at the VA. I had to come here to do it.

“Why do you suppose that is? Somebody is shining a spotlight on the VA.”

Jewell was one of 159 veterans who showed up at the crisis command center, which opened at noon June 10 to nearly 40 veterans waiting to meet with Legion and VA reps, along with other care providers. The Legion set up the command center to provide help for veterans left in the lurch during the Phoenix VA Health Care System’s recent scandal that included secret waiting lists for patients.

Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force, wasn’t surprised by the healthy turnout at the first-ever such event put on by the Legion. “This thing was so well-publicized,” he said. “Once they heard (The American Legion) was coming here, you can see all the media outlets that have been here. It was on the front page of the newspaper. People see that, and they know we’re here to help them solve their access problems, their enrollment problems, their claims, and also with counseling. I expected this.

“It’s a terrible situation (with VA), but a lot of times it takes almost a disaster to happen before people pay attention to a huge problem. This structure was not working. But we have the greatest opportunity I’ve seen in the last 20, 30 years for the VA to turn around right now, because everybody now is aware.”

Staff from VA was there to enroll veterans in the health-care system, schedule medical appointments and, in some cases, grant service connections. Ron Abrams, co-executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington, was present to help file VA claims.

Abrams had a particularly good day, helping two veterans get 100-percent service connections on the spot; one veteran who sought out Abrams’ help will be awarded a retroactive VA payment of more than $60,000. He also helped gain an Agent Orange-related service connection for a Vietnam veteran who had come in with his wife to see if their son, also a veteran, was eligible for benefits.

“Only through the power of The American Legion could we pull (an event) like this off," Abrams said. "It shows the importance of being represented by a knowledgeable person. Service officers are trained to listen to the veteran but then identify what they really should be claiming.”

Getting that kind of help is why so many veterans came to the center. Army veteran Rudy Garza showed up to help his cousin, Air Force veteran Carlos Fernandez, get a higher VA disability rating. Fernandez was diagnosed with a condition by VA in May of 2013 and then went a year without getting any further treatment. “When I asked what was going on three months ago, I was told to fill out paperwork,” Fernandez said.

“He’s been falling through the cracks,” Garza said. “That’s why it’s good to have a center like this – so we can come in and talk to someone in person.”

That’s what motivated Vietnam veteran James Moore, a former Army infantryman. Moore suffers from type 2 diabetes from his exposure to Agent Orange. Both of his lower legs were wrapped because he’s now dealing with cellulitis as a result of his diabetes.

Moore filed a claim to increase his service connection in January 2011; he’s still waiting for a ruling. He said he appreciated the Legion setting up the center and the attention the organization has brought to VA’s issues.

“I just hope the attention stays on them,” Moore said. “Only when something like this happens does everyone get up in arms. But six months later, no one is talking about it.”

Also available to those visiting the center were grief counselors and a suicide-prevention team from La Frontera, a community-based, nonprofit behavioral health center. After meeting with the team, one veteran was able to be transported to an inpatient treatment facility to get more help.

“I think one of the biggest keys to the success that we had was bringing outside resources in, where we might otherwise have referred out to if we needed to,” said Department of Arizona Adjutant Angel Juarez, referencing La Frontera specifically. “The idea of having schedulers and other representatives from the VA really helps us to drive home what we’ve been after fundamentally since this all began. What’s important to us is that whatever’s broken, we’re not just here to complain about it. We’re here to help be a part of fixing it.”

Volunteers from the Red Cross were present to help pass out water, provide food and fill in the gaps whenever needed. Local media outlets were at the center on and off all day. Also present was staff from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.

And plenty of Arizona Legionnaires worked side by side with national staff to help any veteran who came into the center. One such volunteer was Andres “Andy” Jaime, a member of Post 44 in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“That’s our job as American Legion members,” he said. “That’s our first priority: making sure we take care of the veterans. And we’re really trying to restore veteran’s faith in the VA system. I just talked to a veteran who said he’d quit using the VA after 30 years, and now he was getting better treatment. That’s sad to me.”

The crisis center was set to reopen from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. PT today and Thursday, and 8 a.m.-noon Friday.

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