Editor’s note: This is a weekly series of Department Spotlight stories featuring unique programs and initiatives of departments throughout The American Legion. Department adjutants are invited to recommend subjects for their departments by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new Veterans Claims Builder software program is allowing accredited American Legion Department of Virginia service officers to file more claims quickly and accurately than before.
Sarah Maddox, a service officer who oversees the state’s Western region, has been working with the Mil-Vet Advocacy Project for about two years to conceive and develop the program. It was introduced to other department service officers in January.
“This tool allows us to not only do quality claims but to do more claims to help more veterans,” Maddox says, adding that Virginia has 25 accredited volunteer service officers.
The website walks service officers through a series of questions with veterans for a comprehensive review of their claims. The information, which can be saved and updated later, is private — each veteran selects a personal identification number to log in to their information.
When the service officer and veteran sit down to go over the claim, the tool gives cues to help ensure a thorough claim. It includes questions even experienced service officers may not normally ask: Were you in a military vehicle accident? Were you in a personal vehicle accident while on active duty? Did you play sports in the military?
“If you are a female veteran, there are standard female questions in the program because typically male service officers don’t always ask the female-specific questions,” Maddox pointed out. “It’s pretty comprehensive.”
Maddox worked with Gregg Lysko of Mil-Vet Advocacy Project, Inc., to develop the web-based, self-populating system. They are co-founders of Mil-Vet Advocacy Project.
“The Legion does amazing work on the claims side,” said Lysko, a Marine veteran. “One of the reasons we came to the Legion is for the additional feedback. If there are questions you don’t see here that you think of, we’ll add them. The program is very easy and adaptable in that sense.”
So far, Virginia service officers have filed approximately 290 claims with the tool since January 2017.
“We have a wealth of knowledge and experience among our service officers,” Maddox said. “It is state of the art technology. We become better service officers. We become better educated. We become better at filing claims. We are constantly learning. This can be constantly updated to meet the needs of the veteran and The American Legion.”
The tool can be used for a first-time veteran visitor or someone already in VA’s system. “We can use this to start a fully developed claim for someone new,” Maddox said. “Or, if it is someone who is already service-connected it’s even better because we know that person is service-connected. And we can look at other possible conditions for his claim.”
It’s been revolutionary for Maddox and others.
“This changes how we operate as service officers,” she said. “We shouldn’t be using pen and paper anymore. We live in a technology world. So why not maximize the use of technology?”
One example is when a veteran has a traumatic brain injury. The software will prompt the service officer to ask if the veteran has a sensitivity to light that is often associated with TBI. If the answer is yes, the veteran’s disability rating could potentially increase.
Norman Jean Newman, Virginia’s department service officer overseeing the Eastern region, emphasized how the software has helped train the volunteers. In Virginia, Newman and Maddox each hold weekly training for their teams.
“It’s a wonderful tool because it sets up the questions for the new service officers when they are interviewing the clients,” Newman said. “If the veteran has carpel tunnel, there is an area in here where you can click on it and it will have a breakdown of what carpel tunnel is; a medical dictionary is included for those who are not familiar with it. This tool pretty much does it for you and it is pretty quick. The new trainee may not know what questions to ask. The tool does it for you. You can’t miss anything.”
Newman also said it helps patients know what questions to ask their doctor and what forms to bring in to VA.
Newman and Maddox, who have a combined 45 years of experience as service officers, say the tool is a welcome change.
“I consider it a blessing,” said Maddox, who has completed claims for veterans spanning from World War II through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re all passionate about the work. We’re all volunteers. We give up our time because we believe in helping the veteran.”