VA Disability, Benefits Checks to Increase 1.5 Percent

Photo courtesy of VA.gov

Photo courtesy of VA.gov

Veterans, their dependents and survivors will receive a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase in their disability and benefits compensation checks starting Jan. 1, 2014 according to a release from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We’re pleased there will be another cost-of-living increase for Veterans, their families and their survivors,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki stated in a news release. “The increase expresses in a tangible way our Nation’s gratitude for the sacrifices made by our service-disabled and wartime Veterans.”

In fiscal year 2013, VA provided over $59 billion in compensation benefits to nearly 4 million Veterans and survivors, and over $5 billion in pension benefits to more than 515,000 Veterans and survivors.

VA Secretary Hails Success of Veterans Courts

Retired General Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, discusses the VA's support for Veterans Treatment Courts during the inaugural Justice For Vets Veterans Treatment Court conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on Monday, December 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for The National Association of Drug Court Professionals)

Retired General Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, discusses the VA’s support for Veterans Treatment Courts during the inaugural Justice For Vets Veterans Treatment Court conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on Monday, December 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for The National Association of Drug Court Professionals)

Florida lawmakers joined a growing trend last year when they allowed the establishment of Veterans Courts if approved by the chief judge of the circuit. But some Florida judges were already dealing with veterans issues separately on their daily dockets.

The success of Veterans courts was noted this week by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki at an inaugural conference for Veterans Treatment Courts held by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals  in Washington D.C.

Part of Shinseki’s speech:

For Veterans entering the justice system who are already dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues, we have established Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO)—172 full-time specialists, working directly with justice officials, to see that Veterans who are before the court or already in jail get the care they need and that courts are supported in their consideration of best possible alternatives to incarceration. We are also working to connect our VJO specialists with American Indian tribal justice systems to do the same thing.

In their first year, 2010, VJO specialists served 5,800 Veterans. This year, that number is up to nearly 36,000 Veterans, and we plan to hire another 75 specialists next year.

The core of the Veterans Treatment Courts is first the judge who is familiar with issues some veterans struggle with like traumatic brain injury and PTSD and it offers a team approach for defendant to receive support and services from veterans groups, VA specialists and social support experts.

Find more information and a map of available Veterans Courts here. The complete transcript of the Secretary’s speech is available here.

Veterans, Military Families to Protest Shutdown

World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Courtesy the National Parks.

World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Courtesy the National Parks.

Veterans and active-duty military families are joining forces to demand an end to the government shutdown that now threatens VA benefits and disability payments to more than 5 million according to testimony last week by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The coalition of 33 veterans and military family organizations plans to gather this morning at the World War II Memorial the Washington Post reports.

“Many services that military families count on daily are suspended,” the coalition said in its statement. ”Veterans make up 27 percent of the federal workforce and don’t know when they will get to go back to work.”

The World War II Memorial has emerged as a favorite protest site from the start of the two-week-old shutdown, when barriers closing the site were pushed aside to allow visiting World War II veterans to see the memorial. On Sunday, hundreds of veterans tore down barricades from memorials and monuments and piled them in front of the White House.

Although some reports show the very elected officials who many say forced the government shutdown have appeared at the protests and are working to align themselves with veterans the military families.

Shutdown Could Stop November VA Disability Payments

VA Sec. Eric Shinseki Photo credit: va.gov

VA Sec. Eric Shinseki Photo credit: va.gov

The Two-Way with National Public Radio reports:

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned lawmakers on Wednesday that the partial government shutdown means that about 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month.

Shinseki, in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said pensions to more than half a million vets or surviving spouses will also be derailed if the stalemate over a temporary spending measure drags on into late October.

The Associated Press reports:

“Shinseki drew comparisons to the last shutdown in 1996, a time of sustained peace. The current shutdown occurs as the war in Afghanistan is in its 13th year and as hundreds of thousands have returned from Iraq. They are enrolling in VA care at higher rates than previous generations of veterans.

” ‘They, along with the veterans of every preceding generation, will be harmed if the shutdown continues,’ Shinseki said.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the committee, questioned whether the administration had given accurate and complete information to veterans as to the full impact of the shutdown.

“We’ve had some difficulty in the last couple of weeks getting good information about VA’s contingency plan and the effects a lapse in appropriation would have on veterans,” he said.

Shinseki told the committee that the VA had planned for an orderly shutdown but that “unprecedented legal and programmatic questions” have arisen.

VA Budget Proposes a 10 Percent Increase for Veterans

VA-logo2The President has proposed a $152.7 billion budget for the VA. Unlike other federal agencies, that would mean an 10.2 percent increase over the current year according to the Veterans Health Administration.

The additional money will pay for three major goals: eliminating the disability claims backlog, expanding access to benefits like health care and ending homelessness among veterans.

Eliminating the Claims Backlog

Using people and a $291 million investment in technology in the coming fiscal year, the goal is to eliminate the backlog and process all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy. That’s the goal of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

  • $136 million for Veterans Claims Intake Program (VCIP); and
  • $155 million for the next generation of the electronic claims processing system Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS).

Expanding Access

Whether its making health care more accessible to veterans in rural areas or expanding veterans’ college transition programs, there’s funding to expand access. Some examples:

  • $460 million in home telehealth funding, which helps patients monitor chronic health care problems through innovative uses of the telephone, a 4.4 percent increase over the current year;
  • $422 million for women-specific medical care, an increase of nearly 14 percent over the present level;
  • $799 million for the activation of new and enhanced health care facilities;
  • $16 million for the construction of three new national cemeteries; and
  • $8.8 million for “VetSuccess on Campus” at 84 facilities, a program that helps Veterans transition to college life.

Ending Veterans Homelessness

This is a  strategic goal for the VA – to end homelessness among Veterans in 2015.  The budget request targets $1.4 billion for programs to prevent or reduce homelessness, which includes:

 

  • $300 million for Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) to promote housing stability;
  • $278 million for the HUD-VASH program wherein VA provides case management services for at-risk Veterans and their families and HUD provides permanent housing through its Housing Choice Voucher program; and
  • $250 million in grant and per diem payments that support temporary housing provided by community-based organizations.

Major Health Care Costs

The budget proposal also covers the health care costs for more than 6.5 million veterans and items like:

  • $6.9 billion for mental health;
  • $4.1 billion for health care for Veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn;
  • $2.5 billion for prosthetics;
  • $601 million for spinal cord injuries;
  • $246 million for traumatic brain injuries;
  • $230 million for readjustment counseling; and
  • $7.6 billion for long-term care.

Studying Student Veteran Graduation Rates

soldier-vet-military-student“Graduate! Graduate! Graduate!” There was no second guessing the message VA Secretary Eric Shinseki delivered this January at the Student Veterans of America annual conference in Orlando.

Veterans’ college graduation rates also topped the topics for the journalist’s panel that followed Sec. Shinseki’s speech. Both the panel and Shinseki’s speech can be linked to some national news reports that said 88 percent of military veterans drop-out in their first year of college.

That statistic has not been substantiated and it’s been refuted by SVA:

SVA’s own research found that an NBC News article from July 2, 2012 was the first known media report this year citing the 88 percent dropout rate as fact. The source for NBC’s “statistic” is not a report, but rather a presentation published by the Colorado Workforce Development Council and the Colorado State Office of the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS).

The presentation cites reports from the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee and the book Combat Leader to Corporate Leader by Chad Storlie as the sources for the data. Not only are these documents void of such numbers, but officials for the three groups have repeatedly stated that they did not provide the information.

The problem is that very little data had been gathered about student veterans, but that’s changed thanks to a joint project with the VA, the National Student Clearinghouse and the SVA.

The first brief from that research partnership was released by the Student Veterans of America:

  • approximately 68 percent of veterans who responded reported they received the degree or certificate for which they were receiving VA educational benefits, according to the 2010 National Survey of Veterans.
  • approximately 61 percent of veterans reported attending some college or higher. In contrast, approximately 56 percent of non-veterans reported some college or higher, according to the U.S.Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

You can get the full research brief on student outcomes for Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients here.

Shinseki to Student Vets: Graduate, Graduate, Graduate

VA Sec. Eric Shinseki Photo credit: va.gov

VA Sec. Eric Shinseki Photo credit: va.gov

Roughly 2 million veterans and their family members are eligible for tuition, books and living expenses under the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

And like every budget line in Washington, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told the annual gathering of Student Veterans of America that  their education benefits need to show a “return on investment”  or risk being cut.

This is the fourth time Shinseki has addressed the SVA national conference and each time he’s carried the same message.

“The one word speech I usually give is graduate, graduate, graduate,” Shinseki said punctuating his words for emphasis. “If I sound like your dad, I am. I’m paying most of your bills.”

But paying those education benefits could have a cost if the VA can’t show results.

The problem is there is very little data on student veteran graduation rates.

However, there were two media reports last year that used unsubstantiated data claiming extremely high dropout rates. Until there’s good data, veterans’ organizations say they have to continually refute the two unsubstantiated reports.

Shinseki reported that progress is being made. More than 2600 schools are now voluntarily reporting graduation rates to the VA. He said between June 2011 and December 2012 the reporting schools notified the VA that more than 62,000 veterans graduated and 4,800 completed programs.

It was standing room only for VA Sec. Eric Shinseki's keynote address at the 2013 Student Veterans of America convention in Orlando last week.

It was standing room only for VA Sec. Eric Shinseki’s keynote address at the 2013 Student Veterans of America convention in Orlando last week.

“The best measurement of success is completion rates for those who enter the education realm or the training realm,” Shinseki said. “It’s not who goes in the front door but who completes the program and moves on to successful lives.”

The VA just signed an agreement with the Student Veterans of America organization and the National Student Clearing House to create data base for post 9-11 GI bill beneficiaries.

“We are now entering the fourth year of the post 9-11 GI bill. Shot clock ticks, we need to get as much energy into this so we benefit veterans who have this opportunity that only comes around once in a rare period,” Shinseki said. “I’m a Vietnam generation guy, we didn’t have this.”

He said the original GI Bill for WWII veterans only lasted 12 years and during that time, 7.8 million GIs got an education.

Shinseki advised the 600 SVA members attending the conference to continue to do the hard work they did while serving in the military. And like a father-figure, he told the young men and women he was very proud of them.

“Do good. Take advantage of this opportunity, but help other veterans who are also going through this process with you,” Shinseki said. “You’re not a formation. There are not commanders, no first sergeants in this group. But you’re a unit. You have that shared experience. You know how to take care of each other. You know how to start a run and finish it.”

He said he would be there to cheer them on, open doors and provide resources — but he can’t write their papers or take their tests and that student veterans should be there to help each other.

A Florida Voice for Women Veterans Goes to Washington

gerson2Florida women veterans have a new voice in Washington D.C. It’s Larri Gerson, a veteran claims examiner with the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.

Gerson is a new appointee to the federal, VA Committee on Women Veterans which advises VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

She believes her frontline status – as a claims examiner and as a former women veteran coordinator for Florida – earned her appointment to the federal committee.

“They wanted us women who are on the front-lines, the benefits front-lines, so that we can come up there and really speak to the problems that women veterans are facing around the country,” Gerson said.

Gerson has already met in Washington with the 12-member committee. She listened and learned but also came prepared with some priority items. Her top issue is getting a full time women veteran coordinator for each state. She says only three of the 50 states have a full time coordinator to advocate and educate.

“The federal government could fix this problem by funding the position in each state directly,” Gerson said. “I went up to Washington with my mindset this would create a consistent service for female veterans no matter where they live.”

However an under-secretary with the VA used statistics to argue that a women veteran coordinator in every state was not needed.

“I disagree,” Gerson said. “The purpose of a women’s coordinator should not be based only on numbers. I’m not a bean counter.”

She’s not given up on that issue and is bringing up others.

“Whether women veterans were getting equal consideration for service connection when they file for PTSD under the relaxed legislation for combat exposure and MST (Military Sexual Trauma),” Gerson said. “Do women veterans have to work harder to make their case at the regional level.”

As a veteran claims examiner, she’s noted discrepancies in the processing and ratings of claims, especially women veterans

Gerson doesn’t expect women veteran issues to be resolved overnight. She is just happy to be a member of an advisory committee and get the women’s issues before VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Daniel Inouye: Courage on the Battlefield and in Congress

Photo credit: Sen. Daniel Inouye bio page

Photo credit: Sen. Daniel Inouye bio page

I have been remiss not marking the passing of another WWII Veteran, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye.

He fought both on the WWII battlefield being awarded the Medal of Honor and in the halls of Congress earning voters’ continued approval since he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962.

Of all the comments memorializing the long-serving senator, one of the most heartfelt came from Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki:

“Senator Daniel K. Inouye stood among the ‘greatest’ of our ‘Greatest Generation.’  Recipient of the Medal of Honor, our Nation’s highest award for valor; distinguished service as a long-serving member of the U.S. Senate; and role model to generations of Americans of Asian-Pacific Islander heritage, especially those growing up in his beloved Hawai’i, Senator Inouye made public service a noble and honorable calling.

Dan Inouye’s courage on the battlefield and in Congress, his passion for making a difference in the lives of average Americans, and his intense modesty spoke volumes about a remarkable American, who embodied the bedrock values and quiet virtues of our Nation.

On behalf of America’s 22 million Veterans, I salute the memory of a brave man, a great patriot, a devoted public servant, an unwavering benefactor to Servicemembers and Veterans of every generation, and my friend and mentor.  I extend my deepest personal condolences to the entire Inouye family.”

A Christmas Gift for Veterans: Less VA Paperwork

Veteran

Veteran (Photo credit: Keturah Stickann)

One less form – a little less red tape – the Department of Veterans Affairs announced this week it will no longer require veterans to complete an annual Eligibility Verification Report (EVR).

Instead, the VA is shifting about 100 staff that handles EVRs to help process the backlog of  veterans’ compensation claims. It estimates by eliminating the EVR about 150,000 beneficiaries in January will be spared filling out the annual form.

Working with the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration, the VA will develop a new way to confirm continued benefits eligibility. In the past, veterans have been required to fill out an EVR each year so their pension benefits continued.

“By working together, we have cut red tape for Veterans and will help ensure these brave men and women get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.

All beneficiaries currently receiving VA pension benefits will receive a letter from VA explaining the changes and providing instructions on how to continue to submit their unreimbursed medical expenses.

More information about VA pension benefits is available HERE.

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