When American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger visited the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission on Aug. 24, the first thing he said to the group was, "You need to give your chairman and your director a big hand," - which they did. "It was through their efforts this year that brought to light what turned out to be the (Department of Veterans Affairs) scandal, and their commitment and dedication to the veterans of this country is unparalleled. I’m just happy to be along for the ride."
Dellinger spoke briefly to commission members on Aug. 24 during the Legion's 96th National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Referring to his May 5 call for Eric Shinseki to resign as VA secretary, he said, "It wasn't just me, it was all of us that stood up and said ‘Enough’s enough.’ You expect a servicemember possibly to die in battle, but you don’t expect veterans to die waiting for the health care they’ve earned."
The commander said the Legion needs "to continue to seize the moment. We started the ball rolling. and it will be interesting to hear from (VA) Secretary (Robert) McDonald, and also the president this week, to see what they’re going to do to regain the trust of the stakeholders – us, the partnerships – what they’re going to do to make sure that our veterans get the care that they deserve."
President Obama and McDonald are both scheduled to address Legionnaires at the convention on Tuesday, Aug. 26.Following Dellinger's remarks, VA & R Commission Chairman Ralph Bozella updated members on activities on the Legion's Health Policy Unit, which completed 16 site visits to VA medical centers through its System Worth Saving (SWS) program. Then, last April, CNN reported that at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for their medical appointments at the VA medical center in Phoenix. The following month, VA's own Office on Inspector General confirmed that serious delays in medical care and the falsification of appointment records was widespread among VA facilities.
"What did The American Legion do about that? Did we sit on our heels and do nothing?" Bozella asked. "Absolutely not. Under the capable direction of Verna Jones, our (VA&R Division) director, we began our Veterans Crisis Command Centers (VCCs) - teams of experts that we dispatched first to Phoenix. We were there to assist veterans and their families affected by the health-care scandal."
In Phoenix, Bozella said, The American Legion worked side-by-side with VA staff on benefits claims, health-care enrollment and other services. In four days, the crisis center at American Legion Post 41 helped nearly 700 veterans and family members. "I was there and there is no question in my mind this is the greatest health-care tool, and claims and benefits tool, I’ve ever seen this organization do for veterans.
“We helped so many veterans who couldn't get appointments because we had VA people right there with us. We were able to get veterans enrolled into VA on the spot, and some of them got their appointments the same day." At this, the audience applauded heartily.
Phoenix was just the beginning. The American Legion set up more VCCCs in Fayetteville, N.C.; El Paso, Texas; Fort Collins, Colo.; St. Louis, Baltimore and in West Virginia.
Bozella said a great number of success stories were generated by assistance veterans received at those crisis centers. "A Vietnam War veteran comes to mind. He had been waiting 40 years for a disability claim. He got his 100 percent disability rating at our crisis center. These are the kinds of things that happen at these places, and it was such a success that the program was extended to other cities."
Bozella commended House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who "was with The American Legion (VCCCs) in spirit by supporting all that we do. We are really pleased to have that sort of support from Chairman Jeff Miller on the work that we are doing out in the field."
The commission heard updates from Bozella on other programs: So far this year, Legionnaires have volunteered more than 625,000 hours at VA facilities; Legion workers at the Board of Veterans Appeals have represented more than 8,500 veterans in the past year (a 21 percent increase from the previous year); about 75 percent of the claims appeals represented by the Legion have been overturned in favor of veterans and their families; and the Legion's Regional Office Action Review program helped improve claims processing at VA regional offices in Seattle, Phoenix and Jackson, Miss.