Special Report: Legion offices across the country quietly tackle special cases

Less visible than The American Legion’s network of service officers are Legion-staffed offices in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Winston-Salem, N.C., and St. Paul, Minn., that handle specific types of claims at the national and regional levels.

The Legion helps active-duty personnel with benefits delivery at discharge (BDD) claims in Salt Lake City and Winston-Salem, while St. Paul’s focus is VA overpayment. Philadelphia works on issues related to VA life insurance policies and non-service-connected disability claims.

Hans Michalke, an Army retiree and former Utah department service officer, sees more than 80 new BDD claims (application for VA benefits prior to separation) go through his office each month. The Salt Lake City office gets all the BDD claims with Legion power of attorney west of the Mississippi River. Winston-Salem gets the eastern half.

Michalke’s job is to make sure they are in order before they are reviewed by VA. “I try to catch as many mistakes as possible so it doesn’t have to come down to an appeal. And sometimes, after VA adjudicates and denies the claim, I will review it again and try to find something that VA did wrong. I have a great working relationship with the VA folks here, so I can walk a claim up to them and say, ‘Hey, here’s something I think you might have missed.’”

Lakeisha Bracey, who works for the Legion in Winston-Salem, has a similar rapport. The Army veteran started with the Legion in 2008 after working for VA. “I had a pretty well-rounded knowledge of BDD, and I also was able to see some of the difficulties veterans had in filing their claims,” she says. “This job gave me an opportunity to help those veterans from the other side of the process.”

Bracey deals with about 85 cases a week, many for troops who don’t understand the slow pace of the process. “Some are pretty irate,” she says. “I try to calm them down. I also let them know everything what’s going on and try to be supportive as possible. A lot of times they just want to know an actual person is working on their claim.”

In St. Paul, Julie Larsen, a 34-year employee of The American Legion, serves as a liaison in overpayment cases.  Common issues involve VA compensation for disability pensions or education benefits to someone who has failed to accurately report income, assets or a change in marital or dependent status.  “People start to work and fail to report it, or they get married, or a dependent child moves out of the home,” Larsen says. “They either don’t tell or forget to tell VA. Most of the time, it’s simply an oversight or not knowing.”

Larsen says VA usually gives veterans between 30 and 60 days to respond or cover the overpayment. If there’s no response, benefits are suspended.

“It can ruin someone’s credit,” Larsen says. “What this office does is try to set up a manageable payment plan or reduced payment amount.”

Gil LaVerda, a Legion employee of more than 30 years, reviews and processes between 600 and 800 of six VA-administered insurance policies from his office in Philadelphia: United States Government Life Insurance, National Service Life Insurance, Veterans Special Life Insurance, Veterans Reopened Insurance, Service-Disabled Veterans Insurance and Veterans Mortgage Life Insurance.

LaVerda checks for details such as eligibility for disability waivers, or if additional benefits are available.  “There are a lot of cracks they can fall through, so I try to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he says. “I focus on the veterans eligible for waivers, because veterans who are working and have a minor disability rating really don’t need me once their insurance is approved.”

Because the insurance program has a much higher level of automation, LaVerda also spends his days helping John Katz, who deals with non-service-connected disability claims – a benefit paid to wartime veterans with limited income who are no longer able to work. Manila folders are stacked deep around his desk. His monthly workload consists of some 200 claims, along with 20 or more daily emails and dozens of phone calls. Of the Philadelphia VA Regional Office’s 158,478 pending cases, the Legion has power of attorney on more than 27,000. “We are swamped,” Katz says. “Our office is too popular. I need to respond to all the questions I get, and I also spend an hour or so a day triaging all incoming mail. The rest of the time is pushing out paperwork.”

Katz, who spent 20 years as a department service officer before he moved to the Philadelphia office, is responsible for making sure that non-service-connected disability claims are ready to go on to VA. “I act primarily as an advocate,” he says. “I make sure all the basic info is there, along with the evidence they need to receive their benefit.

“I had a guy who had no money coming in and no way to pay the rent. He was looking for some way to put food on the table, and he didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. We’re here to help those people.”