John Lee, Washington state VA director.

Washington state VA director Q & A

For the first time in nearly two decades, John Lee is optimistic about the odds of demolishing the barriers that make it difficult for his agency to work with the federal VA. The reason for his new outlook, after 18 frustrating years of trying to share information and resources? “The promise and hope of Gen. Eric Shinseki to run VA and Tami Duckworth as assistant secretary for government affairs,” says Lee, director of the Washington state VA. “Gen. Shinseki is a distinguished veteran of combat in Vietnam and spent an incredibly distinguished career in the U.S. Army. He has demonstrated the ability to bring about the kind of change we’ve been talking about. Tami Duckworth was director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. She understands what we’re trying to do.”Lee’s past frustration stems from his efforts to get the most from a state fund he can tap to provide rapid financial assistance to veterans and their families – for everything from car repairs to child care. The Washington state VA has helped 550 veterans and families from the current wars. And it wants to do more. However, Lee’s department often can’t locate veterans he believes are falling through the cracks. A new veteran can wait months for a disability claim to be processed. But the federal VA won’t tell the state director how to find the veteran to provide assistance while he or she waits, not even so much as a telephone number. Lee is weary of analyses, investigations and studies of the problem. “In the 18 years I’ve been in this business, I have seen endless GAO studies and blue ribbon panels and we have never seen any significant change in the amount of time it takes to adjudicate a claim,” Lee says. “At some point, there has to be some clear, swift action.”He believes Shinseki and Duckworth will deliver. He would like to see them get the support they need from Congress, including a simple mandate directing VA to establish new government-to-government working agreements with state veterans departments.    Lee has the ideal résumé for making his case. His 21-year Army career includes service in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 82nd Airborne during the Vietnam War. He retired as command sergeant major of the 3rd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., in 1990, and went to work at the state veterans affairs department as an administrative assistant. Lee is highly regarded by his contemporaries at the federal level. Last year, he received the VA’s prestigious Diamond Award for his exemplary service to veterans.Lee recently explained his proposal for resolving the state-federal disconnect to The American Legion Magazine.Q: What is the single most beneficial change the federal VA could make? A: Seize the opportunity to fully utilize their state department of VA partners and create legal agreements, state by state, that could enhance all of the services we provide.Q: What’s the greatest challenge you have faced in the past in trying to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs? A: I do not enjoy a rich and healthy data-sharing agreement with the federal VA. The greatest obstacle I face is, “Do they trust me – John Lee – and do they trust the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs?” I enjoy a much richer data-sharing relationship with The American Legion.Q: How does VA share information with your department without violating patient privacy laws? A: We’re not dramatically different than any other agency that gets this kind of information. We’re a state government department. All of our employees are HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant. Anyone could have the authority to look over and check out what we’re doing. And we are not some “Johnny-come-lately” entity. We have been serving veterans for decades. We’ve successfully created data-sharing agreements with other agencies.Q: Are there any examples of where this sort of effort has been successful?A: Several years ago, Congress told the Department of Defense and VA to learn how to work together. Now, for example, veterans in Washington state can receive some of their care at both Madigan Army Medical Center and the Tacoma VA Medical Center. Q: How does the information gap affect your ability to help veterans? A: You would think I know where every veteran in the state is. I don’t. Let’s say you are a member of the National Guard who returned from the war with a back injury you sustained in a 5-ton truck accident on the streets of Baghdad. Because of your injury, you are no longer able to pursue your career as a heavy-equipment operator. It takes about six months to get a disability claim approved. There is this window where, if someone doesn’t help you, you will sink. I call the federal VA, tell them I know you are back from Iraq, and I know you are in a bad situation. They won’t tell me your address. They won’t tell me where the claim is in the system so I can help out.Q: What sorts of things can the state do that the federal VA cannot?A: We have the greatest veterans benefits system in the world. But it is not the family system. What happens to the family when their Guard member is deployed and the family lives in small rural towns like Ephrata or Asotin and they have no military support in their community? We can provide money for child care. We might use $10 of American Legion funding and $5 of state funding. Washington state is the largest user of The American Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance fund. We use the heck out of it.Q: What about mental-health services?A: We have a state-funded PTSD program. We go where there are no federal centers. If we had an information-sharing agreement, we could improve where we go with our mental health services. Give me the mandate, put me in a room with the regional VA director and some of our smart folks, and I guarantee you we could make things better.Q: What can you offer National Guard and Reservists who don’t have access to the same discharge programs that help members of the regular armed forces get a head start on benefits claims and a disability rating? A: I’ve worked with the Washington Army National Guard to arrange it so the 81st Heavy Combat Brigade will demobilize at Fort McCoy, Wis., this summer. I am sending an advance team to Fort McCoy to do all of the out processing – and see that these men and women get their DD-214, file disability claims, file for unemployment or file for education benefits. We will look them in the eye with a PTSD counselor. A TRICARE representative will be there to set up medical care. We will have a captive audience. I think this is a model other states could adopt. Nobody has been able to break the code with reservists. They often deploy one or two or six with an active-duty military unit, and then return and we don’t know about it. – Ken Olsen