Special Report: State relationship helps Minnesota service officers cover ground

Jeremy Wolfsteller isn’t sure he could stand to spend every day in the office plowing through the paperwork necessary to help veterans file claims for VA benefits. Thanks to a time-tested arrangement between The American Legion’s Department of Minnesota and the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA), he doesn’t have to.

Since 1943, the state and the Legion have worked together to help veterans understand their benefits and file for them. The MDVA office, staffed largely by veterans who are American Legion members, handles the claims application process, allowing the department service officers – Wolfsteller and Tom Newman – to perform outreach to veterans and their families.

“This arrangement really frees up my time to do so many other things, like Heroes to Hometowns and providing information on education benefits,” says Wolfsteller, a service-disabled Army veteran and member of Post 1982 in St. Paul. “It also allows me to raise awareness among our veterans about Minnesota programs such as the State Soldiers Assistance Program. It lets me get out there and work with veterans, where I feel I can really make a difference.”

Meanwhile, MDVA handled more than 11,000 cases in fiscal year 2012, including power-of-attorney transfers, along with state and federal benefits claims. In May, the office handled 925 claims – cases that the office in St. Paul will work through the decision process, all the way to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals if necessary.

“There is unbelievable cooperation between the state and The American Legion, and it’s been that way for decades,” says Ron Quade, MDVA’s director of claims and outreach and a member of Post 45 in New Prague. “And all of it is based upon a handshake agreement. We don’t have a contract with the Legion. I think we’ve been able to avoid the bureaucracy that often gets in the way of progress.”

The MDVA office has 12 claims representatives that can handle a heavy caseload with speed, efficiency and compassion. “We try to be proactive for veterans, rather than reactive,” says Rolando Sotolongo, claims office supervisor and a member of Post 99 in Minneapolis. “We want to do everything we can for our veterans.”

For training, employees go through a mentorship program within the office and spend a month in Washington with national staff in the Legion’s appeals office.

“This relationship is set up so that we can learn from each other,” Quade says. “We try to perpetuate a constant learning environment. It’s mutually beneficial and benefits our veterans. It gives Legion service officers the ability to go do outreach efforts. There are folks all over the state carrying the Legion flag when they’re doing this. And when we go to a legislation hearing here and ask for something that we need, and half the room is full of Legionnaires, that’s pretty powerful.”

The arrangement gives Wolfsteller a chance to do what he loves. “I can get out there for veterans and be taking our Legion programs to them,” he says. “That’s because of this great partnership.”