Looking For Vets Caught In VA “Means Test” Snafu

 

flag_homeI’m reaching out to veterans who may have experienced a lapsed VA “means test” renewal and subsequently been charged for medication or care that should have been free.

It happened at St. Petersburg’s Bay Pines Medical Center as told earlier this year. Is it happening at other VA medical centers?

Confusion over the VA “means test” started three years ago when the Department of Veterans Affairs tried to reduce paperwork. The VA eliminated the annual income verification requirement.

But there are exemptions.

And it’s those exceptions such as low-income veterans who have no co-pays that are causing confusion. Many of those veterans didn’t receive notice or ignored their renewal thinking it was a mistake.

If a low income veteran fails to certify his or her income every year, that veteran will be billed for medication and services once the “means test” lapses.

What’s worse, some may not have been unaware of the lapsed charges or thought the bills were a mistake and had money taken from their benefits checks to cover the overdue VA bills.

Veterans at Bay Pines alerted a new administrator to the bureaucratic snafu and he is credited finding a solution.

But that’s only one of more than a hundred VA Medical Centers. Have veterans elsewhere experienced a similar problem? Please contact me at bobrien@wusf.org. And thank you.

 

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Surfing Links Vietnam Veterans To Past Service And Present

Troops hang out at the China Beach snack bar, an R&R station near a military hospital in Da Nang, Vietnam.
Credit California Surf Museum

Vietnam veterans share their stories of what surfing meant to them while serving “in country” and when they returned home. Here’s a story from my American Homefront Project colleague Steve Walsh.

There’s also a video which includes clips from “China Beach” in Vietnam and surfing in the 1960s. Check it out:

 

St. Petersburg VA Celebrates LGBT Pride Month

Courtesy of the Miami VA

Organizers are hoping for a big turnout for a special LGBT Pride event planned Thursday,  June 15, 2017 at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System (VAHCS) in St. Petersburg, FL.

“Viva La Vida! Live the Life!” is the theme for the celebration open to all veterans and the public. The program will focus on diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity and is scheduled to start at noon at the JC Cobb room located on the first floor of the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center (building 100).

Additionally, there will be information on VA benefits and health care services that are available as well as local business offerings for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Transgender) community.

“We take pride in serving all Veterans and strive to be a national leader in the provision of health care to LGBT Veterans while assuring care is provided in a sensitive, safe environment in all of our facilities,”  Tonya Wieck, Bay Pines Equal Opportunity Program Manager, stated in a news release.

To learn more about the Bay Pines VAHCS’s LGBT Pride Month celebration, please call 727-398-6661, extension 15086.

2017 Memorial Day Tampa Bay Observances

The Special Forces Memorial at U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, FL.

There are a variety of ways to honor the fallen this Memorial Day, several are listed below. Originally, it was called Decoration Day, named after the practice of families and citizens who “decorated” the Civil War graves of fallen troops with wreaths and flowers.

The day dedicated to remembrance was expanded to include American soldiers who died while serving in World War I and then all American conflicts. Memorial Day became a federal holiday in 1971 and now recognizes the sacrifice of all who have lost their lives while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

In 2000 Congress passed additional legislation calling on all Americans to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day.

To pay tribute to the men and women who served and sacrificed for the country, you can locate a VA National Cemetery nearest you that is holding a 2017 Memorial Day Ceremony HERE.

Events in the Tampa Bay region are listed below:

Monday – May 29, 2017

Carry the Load March and Rally – 8 am -2 pm – Ferg’s, 490 Channelside Drive, Tampa. The idea is to have citizens, scouts and ROTC members participate by carrying a rucksack, memento or photo to honor service members and their families for the sacrifices they make. Registration is followed by a brief ceremony, Taps and moment of silence at 8:40. The 5K walk moves down Bayshore Boulevard for 2.5 miles, does an about face, and returns to Ferg’s for a live band and Memorial Rally.

14th Annual Fallen Veterans Ride to Bushnell – 9 a.m. – Start location at the I-75 North, Interstate Rest Area, 1.5 miles north of I-275. The Tampa Bay Chapter of the Defenders Law Enforcement MC is organizing the ride. Kickstands up at 9:30 a.m. to the Memorial Service at Bushnell’s Florida National Cemetery at 11 a.m.

Bradenton Memorial Day Ceremony – 9 a.m. – at Veterans’ Monument Park, directly behind the Manatee Memorial Hospital near U.S. 41 and the Bradenton Riverwalk. The guest speaker scheduled is Retired Rear Admiral Richard Buchanan, sponsored by the Manatee County Veterans’ Council.

Bay Pines National Cemetery – 10 a.m. The Bay Pines VA in Pinellas County will commemorate Memorial Day with a ceremony at the Front Committal at the Bay Pines National Cemetery, 10,000 Bay Pines Blvd. North, St. Petersburg. Keynote speaker scheduled is U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Edward W. Sandlin, Commander, Air Station Clearwater, and  U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, and local VA leaders. The ceremony will also feature musical performances by the Suncoast Symphony Orchestra and Vietnam Veterans who attend may receive a commemorative lapel of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War

Sarasota Memorial Day Parade – 10 a.m. – The parade, in downtown Sarasota, starts at Main Street and Osprey Avenue and concludes at J.D. Hamel Park, at Main Street and Gulfstream Avenue. “Celebrate, Honor, Remember,” is the ceremony that will pay tribute to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. Sarasota Military Academy students will lead the parade carrying an American flag flown at the Battle of Midway, followed by the U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard. Keynote speaker is James D’Angelo. who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era and founded the Midway Memorial Foundation in 1992.

MathAlive and Military Family Day – 9:45 a.m. – A grand opening ceremony at the Glazer Children’s Museum, 110 W. Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa.  Free admission for active-duty military and veterans and their families for Memorial Day. Events will feature  Florida Military Youth of the Year, Gregory Davis, a robotics team demonstration, math and art exhibits and challenges.

Venice Annual Memorial Day Ceremony – 10 a.m. – Patriots Park, U.S. 41,  just north of the intersection of U.S. 41 Bypass North and U.S. 41 Business. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8118 is sponsoring the ceremony which is open to the public. The American Legion NO-VEL Post 159 host and open house immediately after the ceremony at their Post Home, 1770 E. Venice Ave., Venice.

Florida National Cemetery11 a.m. – An ceremony honoring those who have fallen is planned at the Florida National Cemetery Veterans’ Memorial assembly area, 6502 SW 102nd Avenue (Sumter County), Bushnell. For details, call (352) 793-7740 or 1074.

Avon Park Memorial Day Program – 1 p.m. – American Legion Post 69, 1301 W. Bell St., Avon Park, has planned a special program to honor the troops and service animals that have given the ultimate sacrifice for the nation. Contact the Post Service Officer for more information at 850-718-7773.

Annual Memorial Day Concert – 2-4 p.m. – Bring your lawn chairs and coolers for the concert featuring the Sarasota Concert Band at Philippi Estate Park, 5500 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Adults $5, 12 and under are free. For details call: 941-364-2263.

Memorial Day Sunset Ceremony – 7 p.m. – Largo Central Park, 101 Central Park Dr., Largo. The City of Largo is inviting the public to gather at sunset to honor those who have served and died for the country. A color guard, wreath laying and music will round out the ceremony.

Elsewhere in Florida

Barrancas National Cemetery – 9 a.m. – A Memorial Day Ceremony is set at Shelter A, Barrancas National Cemetery at the Naval Air Station, 80 Hovey Road, Pensacola, FL. Call for details: (850) 453-4108 or 453-4846.

St. Augustine National Cemetery,  – 10 a.m. – A Memorial Day Ceremony is scheduled at the Flag pole, St. Augustine National Cemetery, 104 Marine Street, St. Augustine, FL. For information contact: Florida National Cemetery at (904) 766-5222.

South Florida National Cemetery – 10 a.m. – A Memorial Day Ceremony, open to the public, is planned at the Flag pole and Section 39, at the South Florida National Cemetery, 6501 South State Road 7, Lake Worth. For details, call (561) 649-6489.

WASHINGTON D.C. AREA

Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery11 a.m. – The U.S. Army Military District of Washington will conduct a Presidential Armed Forces Full Honors Wreath-Laying Ceremony at 11 a.m., at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to be followed by an observance program hosted by the Department of Defense in the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater. A musical prelude by the United States Air Force Band will begin in the amphitheater at 10:30 a.m. All ceremonies are free and open to the public.

National Memorial Day Parade2 p.m. –  The annual parade is held to commemorate the fallen troops from the Revolutionary War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The parade traditionally marches along Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. Grand Marshals include Ken Burns, documentary film maker; Retired Gen. Richard Myers, 15th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a tribute to World War II generation.

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A Memorial Ceremony For Military Suicide Survivors

This is the third year the American Legion Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, is reaching out to family members and friends who have lost a veteran or military member to suicide.

The hope is to give an opportunity to remember loved ones, to honor their service to the country and to erase the stigma surrounding service members who have died by suicide.

“This event and message will focus on family members and friends who silently suffer the lost of their loved one to their battle with their inner demons,” stated Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, a retired Army combat veteran and chair of the American Legion Florida 15th District Veteran Affairs and Rehab.

The ceremony is Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 1 p.m. at Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL.

Graduating JROTC Cadets Ready And Eager To Serve

JROTC retired Army Lt Col Mo Bolduc shows the display of ribbons and flags that adorn the JROTC room and computer lab

Newsome High JROTC instructor, retired Lt. Col. Mo Buldoc points out the display of ribbons and flags that adorn their computer lab and classroom.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

The teenagers graduating this spring were still in diapers when terrorists attacked the United States September 11, 2001. Yet, many of the high school graduates are stepping up to join the military despite the ongoing “war against terror” and recent tensions in Syria and North Korea.

Graduation starts today at Hillsborough County public high schools. First in line is Newsome High School,  southeast of Tampa in the suburban neighborhood of Fishhawk. As seniors cross the stage at the state fairgrounds to claim their diplomas – many are advancing to college, others moving directly into the workforce and still others are chosing military service.

WUSF talked with several JROTC graduating seniors from Newsome and Steinbrenner high schools about  about their choice of a military life during these times of heightened tensions with North Korea, Syria and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Toddlers in a Time of Terrorism

JROTC Walter Wahle

Newsome JROTC cadet Walter Wahle

“Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve been there since I was one,” said Walter Wahle, 17. “So, it’s kind of just, I guess my generation’s war. Like in the 60s it was Vietnam. So, that’s just where it is today.”

Wahle is enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, then heading to college, Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida, this fall after graduating from Newsome.

The military is the only life Wahle has known.  His dad is a Marine who’s served in Iraq twice.  And this summer, his father will be deploying to Kuwait while Wahle is in boot camp.

“People think that when you join the military you’re signing up to go fight and die” Wahle said. “Most people don’t fight in the military and they only die if they’re in harms’ way and today the number of casualties is so much lower than it has been in past wars and conflicts that people are going to serve, they’re not going to die.”

War Through The Hollywood Lens

JROTC_Destini_Rainey

Newsome JROTC cadet Destini Rainey

The 2005 movie Jarhead, a classic film that provides a deep look into a Marine’s deployment during Desert Storm, is how Destini Rainey was introduced to the military. As a child, Rainey remembers playing military games with her cousin after seeing the film.

“When I watched Jarhead, you see the infantry men shooting people and all the violent graphics,” Rainey said. “But now that I’ve matured, I don’t think that’s the scenario I’m going to be in. That’s kind of why I choose the Navy. They’re less combative than the Marines and Army. So. I’ll be more of the brains instead of the brawn.”

Rainey is scheduled to report on Christmas Day to become a Navy aerographer’s mate. They track the weather and oceans.

“Personally, I hope that we do not go to war,” Rainey said. “I have faith in the president and the other government officials that they make the right decision on what we do with North Korea and Syria. Not my place to say anything about it. So, just if we do go to war, then so be it.”

A Family Military Tradition

JROTC_Nathan_Egli

Steinbrenner JROTC cadet Nathan Egli

The responsibility of war is what Nathan Egli, 18, thought about when he considered his chosen career. He’s headed off to college at Miami of Ohio on a Marine ROTC scholarship. He plans to become an officer, just like his father.

“I’ve realized that wanting to be a leader of Marines in the future is going to be a very difficult task because I’m in charge of multiple things, multiple responsibilities and including other men’s lives. That’s a very difficult thing to grasp  because in the battlefield and just war in general, a lot of things can go wrong,” Egli said.

The Steinbrenner High School graduate said his father, who retired from the Marines in March, supports his decision to follow him in the military and so does his mother.

That support was common among all of the graduates we talked to. One Army recruit said his mom encouraged him to join.  Although she will miss him, she told him he’s doing something he needs to do.

Below are additional voices of young high school graduates who have chosen a military life. They were not part of the broadcast story. We invite you to listen to their thoughts on why they wanted to serve their country and protect all who live here.

VA Chief Resolves Billing Snafu For Up To 600 Vets

AmLegion Vets Roundtable

A Veterans Round-table discussion April 21, 2017 with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg held at American Legion Post 273 of Madeira Beach, FL.

A new administrator at the Bay Pines Healthcare System is being credited by veterans for resolving a paperwork snafu that had some low income VA clients being billed for medications they should have gotten for free.

And what’s worse, some of the low income veterans, who may have been unaware of the VA charges or thought they were a mistake, ended up having the money taken from their benefits checks, according Bill Dreyer, a veteran and peer counselor.

“I have a lot of problems with, right now, the billing system for the VA,” Dreyer told a veterans’ roundtable at American Legion Post 273 last week.

Dreyer described how a female veteran with military sexual trauma, who he is counseling, was charged for her VA medications, yet she never received a bill.

“The reason I found out about this is I’ve been counseling Megan for a while and she got a letter from the Treasury Department that said we are now docking your Social Security benefits,” Dreyer said.

An unidentified veteran in the audience chimed in, “I got one of those (letters) too.”

veteran red shirt day

American Legion Post 273 sells these t-shirts to remind people about “wear red” Fridays.

Unexplained charges for VA medications that are supposed to be free to qualified, low income veterans is not something new to veteran and advocate Randall McNabb, a ride captain with the Patriot Guard Riders.

McNabb said many low income veterans who qualify for free medications don’t know they are required to verify their income status every year. It’s known as a “means test.”

“If their means test goes out of date, it says they’ll be notified at their next appointment. That next appointment could be 10, 12, 14 months down the line,” McNabb said. “Meanwhile, they’re being charged for their medications unknown to them.”

If the veteran ignores the VA bill, thinking it’s just a mistake, it goes to collections. McNabb said that scenario was happening too often especially among veterans who had gone through the VA homeless programs.

“Most of the low income veterans mistakenly believe that it’s a mistake,” McNabb said “Instead of going and checking on it.”

So, McNabb started speaking up like at the quarterly town hall held by the Bay Pines Healthcare System last fall.

One of the people who heard him was Jonathan Benoit, the new, chief of health administration service at Bay Pines Healthcare Systems.

Benoit dug into the data and found 600 veterans who needed to renew their “means test”. But instead of waiting for the veterans to come in for their appointments, Benoit sent letters to all 600 immediately.

“What’s nice is we started with that 600 and in our recent run, I coincidentally saw the stack of letters and it’s only a little more than 100 right now,” Benoit said. “And that’s all the way out for the entire year and I’m hoping it gets lower and lower to a point where we’re on top of every single one of these veterans and they don’t have to experience that inconvenience of having to pay copays.”

McNabb mentioned Benoit’s efforts at the roundtable and said the solution should be shared nationally. Benoit is working on that.

“This is certainly something that I’m going to share with other chiefs and I actually just transferred from Eastern Colorado and I have already shared the process with them,” Benoit said.

He was gratified to see results within just a few months and he is thankful for the veterans’ feedback because he’s a veteran too. Now, Benoit is moving on to his next VA mission: fixing the scheduling system at Bay Pines.

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