NPR Series Shines Light On VA ‘Choice’ Program


Quil Lawrence – NPR reporter. Photo courtesy of NPR.

National Public Radio reporter Quil Lawrence took the lead on an investigation into the Veterans Health Administration plan to lessen wait times at VA medical clinics and hospitals by allowing veterans to see private medical providers.

It was called the “Choice Program.”

However, as the title of the first three stories shows, the hastily assembled program left veterans without more medical options: “How Congress And The VA Left Many Veterans Without ‘Choice.'”

Another part of the investigation looked at how attempts to improve the system has instead prolonged wait-times for veterans trying to get a medical appointment: “Despite $10B Fix Veterans Are Waiting Even Longer To See Doctors.”



WWII Vet’s Mustard Gas Claim Gets A New Review From VA

Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article from 1991 when he and several buddies from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station filed claims for VA benefits related to their mustard gas exposure.

Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article from 1991 when he and several buddies from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station filed claims for VA benefits related to their mustard gas exposure.

More than 70 years after being exposed to mustard gas at boot camp – a World War II veteran’s claim for VA benefits is being reconsidered.

It was not until 1991 that the Department of Defense declassified information on its mustard gas experiments using U.S. soldiers and sailors in training.

Veteran John Tedesco was exposed to mustard gas in January 1944 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station along with some of his buddies from his hometown of Erie, PA.

Navy veteran John Tedesco while serving during WWII. A photo of Joan, his future wife, is tucked into the frame.

Navy veteran John Tedesco while serving during WWII. A photo of Joan, his future wife, is tucked into the frame.

Joan and John Tedesco married more than 67 years.

Joan and John Tedesco married more than 67 years.

So, when the testing became public, Tedesco and his friends from boot camp went down to their local veterans’ office and filed VA claims.

“They were all kind of sick too,” said Tedesco, who has asthma and says he’s had breathing problems ever since he enlisted at age 17. “We had to go up to the VA and get tested. It took two days and I never heard anything from that. That was the first time we tried to get something.”

Tedesco would try again with more evidence – a copy of a letter written home about the mustard gas tests by a friend in the same company at Great Lakes. But that claim was denied too.

“I’ve been turned down every time I’ve tried. Even though when I got that letter and it said in there we were mustard gassed, they still turned me down,” Tedesco said. “So then, I said the heck with it.”

He wasn’t the only veteran to disillusioned after being exposed to mustard gas and denied benefits.

“Big promises were made to these men by the federal government decades ago,” said Caitlin Dickerson, a reporter with the NPR Investigations Desk. “And it was very clear that those promises weren’t upheld. And that there wasn’t a whole lot of time left to tell their stories.”

A copy of the 1944 letter that mentions the company's mustard gas testing at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

A copy of the 1944 letter that mentions the company’s mustard gas testing at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Dickerson spent months digging through documents and the 1991 congressional testimony when those promises were made to care for the thousands of WWII veterans exposed to mustard gas by their own government.

And that NPR investigation has refocused attention on veterans who were exposed but did not receive VA benefits.

It’s hard finding evidence because the mustard gas experiments were kept secret for almost a half century after WWII ended. But Dickerson said the vets could be helped by a ruling in 2006 that allows a veteran’s testimony to serve as evidence.

A veteran has to prove that they were injury in the military, that their disability or illness is service related and still affecting them today.

Dickerson said the VA is now handling all mustard gas claims through one office.

“These mustard gas claims are very specific because, again, they in many cases, they lack that essential evidence. And they’re more nuanced,” Dickerson said.

John Tedesco's wall of memorabilia from his WWII service in the Pacific.

John Tedesco’s wall of memorabilia from his WWII service in the Pacific.

Several members of congress responded to the NPR series.

Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is one of a dozen senators who wrote the VA Secretary requesting that the VA immediately contact exposed veterans and review all pending and denied mustard gas claims.

“They didn’t have an option to say no just like the soldiers in Vietnam who were exposed to Agent Orange didn’t have an option to say no,” Nelson said. “There’s an obligation of the United States government to take care of our veterans.”

By mid-July, Tedesco had received a VA letter offering to review his denied claim. The 88-year-old retired carpenter and contractor filled out the VA form again requesting benefits for his mustard gas exposure from 71 years ago.

You can read Sen. Nelson’s full letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald here.

Congressman Pushing for Speedier VA Benefit Claims

Florida Cong. Jeff Miller (R) being interviewed at a south Texas VA summit.

Florida Cong. Jeff Miller (R) being interviewed at a south Texas VA summit.

Despite the VA’s goal of clearing the disability claims backlog by 2015, the chairman of the House Comittee on Veterans Affairs said that’s still not good enough.

It currently takes 260 days on average to process a disability benefits claim. The VA plans to cut that to 125 days for processing within two years.

Florida Cong. Jeff Miller told Florida Today that batting.500 is “pretty damn good” for baseball but it’s not a good enough for veterans.

The  backlog is attributed to several items such as the complexity of injuries suffered by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Also in 2010, the VA expanded eligibility for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange which swelled the number of claims.Miller said it was the “right thing” to do.

“But I don’t think VA planned,” Miller said. “They had an idea of the numbers of people that would be coming through the system, and that’s where I fault VA.”

It’s estimated that 260,000 Vietnam veterans were added to the benefits backlog of an estimated 1 million total claims. The VA currently processes about 1 million claims a year.

Stetson Offers Help with VA Claims, Training for Attorneys

Michael Allen is Stetson’s Director of the Veterans Law Institute. Photo courtesy of Stetson University College of Law.

Stetson University College of Law opened its Veterans Law Institute on the Gulfport campus less than five months ago. The Veterans Advocacy Clinic already has 20 cases pending or in the pipeline and more than 60 inquiries from veterans looking for help.

Director Michael Allen said this fall semester four law students are working in the clinic helping veterans file for VA benefits or appeal rulings. He hopes to have eight law students working by spring semester.

“It (the legal clinic) allows law students under the supervision of a licensed attorney to actually interact with real clients,” Allen said. “This allows law students to develop the skills they’ll need when the graduate and begin to practice and it also allows a clinic to serve a defined population.”

Veteran and law professor Charles Rose, director of Stetson’s Center for Advocacy and Excellence, talks about the origins of the Veterans Law Institute at the dedication May 31, 2012. Photo courtesy of Stetson University College of Law.

There’s a lot of demand from veterans needing help with their benefit claims. Allen said

Department of Veterans Affairs is set up to be veteran friendly and VA counselors are there to help, Allen said, but they’re overwhelmed. In 2011 alone, more than 1 million claims were filed adding to an overwhelming backlog.

Seeing so many veterans in need is why student veterans at Stetson pushed for the establishment of a Veterans Advocacy Clinic.

Stetson professor Charles Rose recounted during the Institute’s ribbon cutting May 31, 2012 one veteran’s story that kept him motivated.

Marine veteran Javier Centonzio graduated this year with his law degree from Stetson and is now serving as a clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington D. C. Photo courtesy of Stetson University College of Law.

“Four years ago, I promised a young Marine if he would come here,  I would give him a way to do the thing that his heart called him to do,” Rose said. “What did he want? He wanted to learn how to take care of soldiers, he wanted to have the power to represent and to make a difference in their lives.”

That young Marine was Javier Centonzio.

“On Feb 20, 2006 while deployed in Iraq, a roadside bomb took the life of one of my very best friends,” Centonzio told the crowd during the dedication ceremony. “I made a promise to him that day that I would come back, graduate from law school and continue to serve others until the day that I stop breathing.”

Centonzio, a 2012 Stetson College of Law graduate, is now clerking at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C.

Judge Raphael Steinhardt (left), Institute director Michael Allen (middle), and Law Interim Dean Royal Gardner (right) cut the ribbon at Stetson’s new Veterans Law Institute in Gulfport. Photo courtesy of Stetson University College of Law.

There are Veteran Services Organizations – known as VOS – that help veterans with benefit claims.  However, Allen said, there are not nearly enough. The backlog for claims was more than 890,000 cases in September. And, a case takes on average eight months to process.

“Sometimes these delays can seem quite maddening,” Allen said.

That’s why Allen wants to rev up the advocacy mission of Stetson’s Veterans Law Institute to push for reforms that could streamline the VA process.

Stetson’s Veterans Law Institute is also working to train more lawyers in military law.

Stetson and the Florida Bar are sponsoring a Veterans Law Accreditation training program Oct. 27, 2012,  at the Stetson Tampa Law Center, 1700 N. Tampa St.

Judge Robert N. Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C., will present the keynote address, “Fighting Wars Abroad and at Home.”

Sec. Shinseki: VA on Track to Break Claims Backlog

Official image of Secretary of Veterans Affair...

Official image of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A drastic reduction in the disability claims backlog was a top priority for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki when he took over the department three years ago.

“Our intent is to have no claim over 125 days,” Shinseki told American Forces Press Service. “And every claims decision that we put out the door [will be] at a 98-percent quality mark.”

The VA has been testing the new Veterans Benefit Management System in Providence, R.I., and Salt Lake City. Shinseki told Congress last month he believes this technology is helping VA “approach the tipping point in ending the backlog in disability claims.”

The VA is expected to initiate the system nationwide beginning this fall at 16 regional offices in September, with all 56 VA regional offices receiving it by the end of fiscal 2013, Shinseki said.

It’s been an uphill climb because during 2009 the VA produced 900,000 claims decisions, but also received 1 million new claims according to the American Forces Press Service. The next year, VA increased its claims decisions to 1 million, but received 1.2 million new claims.

“Last year, we produced another 1 million claims decisions and got 1.3 million claims in,” Shinseki said. “So the backlog isn’t static. The backlog is a bigger number than we would like, but it is not the same number as three years ago.”

Once the automated system is in place, Shinseki said, he believes the 125-day, 98-percent accuracy goals he set are achievable. “There is a lot on the line here,” he said. Yet, he’s confident because of the success the VA has had with automating the Post-9/11 GI Bill claims.

You can read the full American Forces Press Service article HERE.

Women Veterans Medical Benefits to Include Newborn Care

The increased numbers of women serving in the military led  the Veterans Administration to reassess benefits for female veterans. A new VA medical benefit includes seven days of care for a newborn delivered by a woman veteran  who has  been receiving maternal care.

A Utah veteran is reportedly the first to receive all her maternal care at the Utah VA Medical  Center according to the Salt Lake City Tribune.

Another female veteran shared her ideas on  how VA health care could improve services to women veterans.

Carolyn Schapper served in the Army National Guard, deployed to Iraq in2005 and took part in approximately 200 combat patrols. She now volunteers helping with Veterans’ issues, primarily focusing on women in combat.

In a recent post on VAntage – the VA blog – Schapper wrote the VA exceeded her expectations, but she also offered suggestions.

There was still something missing. The majority of the Veterans were not our generation of female Vets. I fully respect the women who have had many difficult battles of their own and I thank them for paving the way for us. I was heartened that the previous generation of women at the event had strong bonds with one another, bonds I hope to continue with the women I’ve served with and the many female Veterans I now call friends.

Yet the most recent generation of female Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan need to be represented too at the VA–those with the largest number of war-related injuries in history, such as, traumatic brain injury (TBI), combat-related PTSD, and amputations. This generation has unique needs that will only be addressed when we show up and request them.

You can find more details on Women Veterans Health Care  HERE.

Veterans Advice Blog on Service-Connected Conditions

A Tribute to Iwo Jima. Image by Damian Brandon via Free Digital Photos.

There can never be too much information or assistance on how to navigate the Department of Veterans’ Administration due to its complexity and duality; service benefits and health care.

So, I’m pleased to bring you another blog link by David Peters. He started his blog, Veterans Advice, to help Veterans and their families cut through the red tape.

I’ve not met Mr. Peters, but here’s a bit of his background from his blog:

I am a Persian Gulf War era disabled veteran.  The Navy retired me after 14 years of service, on Christmas Eve 1996.  Since then I have worked with Veteran Service Organizations and the Department of Veterans Affairs.  During this time, as a result of my efforts, I’ve helped veterans and their families get over $1 million in benefits they’ve earned.  It’s not the money I’m focused on.  It’s the vast improvement in the quality of life for the veterans and their families that drives me.

So, give his blog a look. His most recent entry discusses Service-Connected injuries.

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