Veterans in Ft. Collins, Colo., express frustration with the Veterans Benefits Administration during an American Legion town hall meeting at Post 4 on July 14. (Photo by Sean Crosier)

Issues with veterans benefits aired in Colorado

Through the first few American Legion town hall meetings during the ongoing Department of Veterans Affairs scandal, the majority of concerns aired by veterans focused on health care or problems with access to it.

But at American Legion Post 4 in Fort Collins, Colo., July 14, issues with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) took center stage. Approximately 40 veterans joined Legion national staff, Department of Colorado Legionnaires, VA staff, the press and staff from Sen. Mark Udall’s office at the meeting, which was scheduled in response to a VA investigation that showed many veterans treated at the Fort Collins community-based outpatient clinic had to wait several months for their appointments. Also revealed in the investigation was that clerks there were instructed on how to falsify appointment records so it appeared the clinic was meeting VA’s goal of scheduling veterans for medical appointments within 14 days.

“We’re here, we believe, as partners with the VA to work together to do whatever we can to improve health care and benefits for veterans in this part of the state,” said Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission. “This is veterans’ opportunity to be heard.”

The majority of what was heard focused on veterans frustrated with VA’s benefits system. “The problem is with VBA,” one veteran said. “They are the gatekeepers. They are the folks who deny your claims. They do that quite well.”

A Vietnam veteran trying to get benefits for his exposure to Agent Orange felt that VBA comes with “every lame-brain excuse they can to deny your claim.” Another referenced the often-quoted "deny, deny, deny 'til you die" reference to VBA claims processing. Still another said he had been waiting on a VA benefits ruling for more than four years and recently received word it would be another six months.

And a Korean War veteran said he was told it would be eight to 10 months before he received a ruling on service-connected hearing loss. A VA rep in the audience said he would work with that veteran this week to get that changed.

A problem with getting a benefits ruling comes from health-care access issues, according to one veteran. He said difficulties seeing a physician trickle down to the benefits side. “If there is no diagnosis, there’s no claim,” he said. “If you can't get in to see a doctor, no diagnosis.” The veteran said he got himself a Medicaid card in order to get treatment.

VA employees receiving bonus still are a contentious issue for some veterans in Fort Collins. One veteran said he never received a bonus while serving in the Navy. “I did my job well and was rewarded with a paycheck,” he said. And another veteran said, “I didn't get civilian bonuses because I stepped on someone else. I got them because I picked people up.”

As at all the other previous town hall meetings, some veterans spoke out in support of VA’s performance. Once veteran said he’s been using VA since 1968 and has – with one exception – had no problems. He referenced a VA staff made up of good people who are “overloaded.”

Another said VA has “given me what I've wanted when I needed it.” And another said he’d just recently gotten a call from VA to schedule an appointment without any prompting from him.

Attendees also got some perspective from a former VA veterans service rep from Seattle. His face shaking at times, he said, “I’m the one who adjudicated your claims. I did the best I could for the five years I was there.”

The man, also a veteran, said low morale hurts VA employees. People who hate their job, he said, aren't necessarily going to do their job well. That's part of the problem. Another issue, he said, is that VA hires too many managers. “They need to hire more leaders,” he said. “Leaders lead people.”

Bozella and Legion staff will meet with VA officials this morning. At noon, the Legion’s Veterans Crisis Command Center will open at Post 4 and run through noon Friday. Services provided will include assistance in filing for VA appointment scheduling, grief counseling, benefits claims, and help with enrollment in VA health care.

“I really, really appreciate the fact VA is here,” Bozella said at the town hall meeting. “I know it couldn’t have been easy to sit here. But these people are good people. They take their jobs seriously. We’re here to work with them to help make this a better system. If it isn’t, nobody wins. The only way we all win is we all work together to improve VA health care.”

A similar town hall meeting also took place July 14 in St. Louis.