2014 Banquet

American Legion News

Legion to Congress: VA needs to improve accuracy of disability claims

The rising backlog of benefits claims appeals at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) was the focus of a House subcommittee hearing on Sept. 10.

During fiscal 2014, the number of benefits claims decisions appealed by veterans increased by more than 21,000 – bringing the current total of appeals waiting for adjudication (as of Sept. 8) to 280,297.

The American Legion submitted testimony for the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation’s hearing, “Metrics, Measurements and Mismanagement at the Board of Veterans Appeals.” Zachary Hearn, the Legion’s deputy director for benefits, was among the panelists who testified.

Through Sept. 1 of fiscal 2014, American Legion employees working at BVA handled 8,366 claims appeals. Of those, 2,330 previous denials were overturned and benefits were awarded; another 3,904 appeals were sent back (remanded) to VA regional offices for further development.

Thus, the decisions made for 74.5 percent of appeals the Legion worked on were deemed to be incorrect by BVA. While many denials were overturned, more were remanded because they were inadequately developed and prematurely denied by VA claims adjudicators.

Hearn told the subcommittee in his prepared remarks that veterans’ claims appeals “are often remanded two, three or even more times prior to having a claim finally adjudicated. Quite simply, this is unacceptable. As has been widely discussed, veterans are having to wait extended periods of time for original decisions. Combine this fact with years of waiting for a claim to be adjudicated by the BVA, and it is understandable why veterans become frustrated.”

The American Legion has repeatedly testified to Congress regarding the need for VA to improve its accuracy in the adjudication of VA disability claims at the regional offices. The Legion’s Regional Office Action Review (ROAR) program evaluates annually the quality of VA claims processing. The accuracy rates determined by ROAR are typically much lower than the 90th-percentile accuracy rates posted by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

In its testimony, The American Legion recommended that Congress pass a bill that would require VA to provide more specific information on the status of benefits claims and appeals in its online Monday Morning Workload Report. Data from the BVA needs to be broken down into grant, remand and denial rates per each VBA regional office.

“It is evident we must continue to press to ensure that VA improves its accuracy of disability claims,” Hearn said. “For the errors made today have long-lasting, deleterious effects upon our nation’s veterans and their families.”

Read The American Legion's written testimony here.


2014 convention resolutions on Digital Archive

At The American Legion's 96th national convention in Charlotte, N.C.,Aug. 22-28, the National Executive Committee passed 277 resolutions spanning Legion programs and priorities, both internally and externally. The resolutions are now available to view in the Legion’s online Digital Archive. See the collection here.

This year's number was much higher than the 35 resolutions passed in Houston in 2013 because the Legion restates its legislative resolutions every two years for the new Congress.

The Digital Archive continues to be updated with new collections and features. Visitors can refine or filter a search by title, date, format type and author.

Honolulu crisis center making a difference

Like she does every week, Honolulu resident Esther C. listened to host Rick Hamada on “The Veterans Movement” radio show on KHVH 830 AM. Hearing a plug for the Legion’s Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) that was coming to her area this week ended up being pretty beneficial for Esther.

After coming to the VCCC and meeting with Legion and Department of Veterans Affairs representatives, Esther found out she likely will be receiving close to $30,000 in retroactive compensation from VA. That news spurred Esther to hug Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division.

“This means a lot,” said Esther, who lives on the island of Oahu. “I was confused about what I was entitled to. That’s why I came in. VA wasn’t doing the right thing until I came in here today.”

The widow of a Vietnam War veteran who passed away from heart failure as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange, Esther eventually began receiving Death Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments after her husband’s death, but it took more than a year for them to kick in.

So she came to the crisis center and met with American Legion service officer Ron Abrams. After meeting with Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) reps, Abrams said Esther would be receiving 12 months worth of DIC payments – roughly $1,200 a month – that should have started right after Moses, her husband, had passed away. She also is expected to get more than a year’s worth of Individual Unemployability payments that her husband should have been receiving before he died.

“If Moses was here, he’d be smiling right now,” Esther said.

Esther was one of more than 60 Hawaii residents who sought help at the Legion’s VCCC, which was open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sept. 9 and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. on Sept. 10. The center also will be open from 8 a.m.-noon on Sept. 12 at the Oahu Veterans Center, located at 1298 Kukila St.

Legion staff and Department of Hawaii Legionnaires were on hand to assist in filing benefits claims. VBA and Veterans Health Administration employees also were there to review claims and schedule health-care appointments.

“By (the Legion) making this effort to come here, it shows they care to a lot to veterans – especially to guys who are having problems,” said Department of Hawaii Commander Dennis Zatecka. “I think (Hawaii) veterans feel they sometimes have to wait a long time to see a doctor. There are guys who have waited a while. That shouldn’t be.”

Zatecka said issues facing Hawaiian veterans include “getting to see a doctor – especially ones who first register with the VA. It’s them getting through all that (red tape) and getting their first visit with the doctor. And if they have a claim, it’s a process that needs to be somehow sped up.”

As a Vietnam War U.S. Navy veteran, Armando Gomez has dealt with that process. He had a heart attack three years ago that he says came about as a direct result of handling canisters of Agent Orange during his service.

“I’ve been through numerous hearings and had claim denials,” Gomez said. “I wasn’t really satisfied with the outcome. I had proof about my claim, and I was unhappy with the process I went through … to try to get my claim looked at or get me some answers. So I thought I’d come here and tell my side of the story.”

Gomez said it was good to talk to someone in person. “I was quite satisfied,” he said. “They were truly concerned with my issues and my problems. I’m glad I came here today. I got the help I was looking for. We’ll see what happens down the line with my claim.”

Samuel Hernandez came to the VCCC somewhat frustrated. While he was visiting family in the states, his wife received a call from VA to schedule a Compensation & Pension Exam. When his wife told VA that Hernandez was off the island and didn’t know for sure when he’d be home, the appointment was scheduled anyway.

Hernandez missed the appointment, which was scheduled for May. He still hasn’t seen a physician. “It’s frustrating for me,” he said. “How can I respond to them if I’m not there and they know I’m not there? I’ve got an injury that dates back to my service in Vietnam. I’m not going to let this issue go.”

Hernandez was put in contact with a VA employee who said she’d have someone call him within 24 hours to reschedule his appointment.

Tuivalentino Kaho, 24, left the Army in March. The Afghanistan combat veteran said navigating the civilian world has been difficult and that having several VA services in the same room at the same time was a big step in getting some help.

“It was very valuable,” said Kaho, who was able to arrange a health-care appointment. “(Abrams) said he could help me out. This is a whole different game when you (leave the military). Having all of this help here really helps out.”

Calvin Griffin, a U.S. Army veteran, came to the center to check on the status of his own claim and to gain information he can share with others. Griffin said he hosts a program on public access television and wants to explain the VA process during the program.

“And today, I’m going to go out and talk to everyone I can about what (the Legion is) doing,” Griffin said. “While you guys are here, there’s going to be a lot that’s going to be done for (veterans).”

Helm: President deserves support in war against Islamic State terrorists

“A step in the right direction,” is how American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm characterized the president’s plan to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State terrorists.

“We understand the reluctance to commit American ground troops to more combat after years of war," Helm said. "However, we also understand the brutality and threat that this group represents. No war has ever been won without boots on the ground, and American troops are the best troops on the ground anywhere. We should not eliminate the possibility.

“While it may be necessary to take even stronger measures if the air strikes and coalition troops are unable to eliminate ISIL, we know that the American people need to be united in their support for such action. It may also be necessary for the president to receive congressional authorization if the plan escalates. Regardless, The American Legion is always united in our support for our military and any missions that our servicemembers undertake to keep America safer. The beheading of Americans, the targeting of civilians and the human rights atrocities committed by these Islamic extremists must end. If 9/11 taught us anything, it is that we must never again grow complacent to this very evil ideology.”

Helm had plenty of criticism for what he termed a failed post-Iraq war policy that helped reverse most of the gains that Americans made after years of war. “Americans should never have had to pay for the same ground twice," he said. "We have lost what was gained through the precious blood of America’s sons and daughters. To say that we will depend on other countries to re-take that land does not seem likely to produce a rosey scenario.”

OCW to treat wounded warriors in Texas

Thanks to The American Legion's Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) program, 900 wounded servicemembers and family members will be treated to a picnic and day of fun at Six Flags San Antonio on Sept. 13.

American Legion posts and Auxiliary units from around the San Antonio area will assist the servicemembers who are currently recovering at the Brooke Army Medical Center. In addition to the barbecue lunch, the servicemen and women will receive OCW backpacks, hats and water bottles.

This is the largest single-day event each year using OCW donations to provide for the nation's wounded servicemembers. Nearly $50,000 of donations will be used to provide the meal, tickets to the amusement park and gift items.

A full 100 percent of funds donated to OCW go directly toward purchasing items and providing recreational activities for recovering warriors.

Legion pushes for independent VA investigation

Richard Griffin, acting inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs, appeared at a Sept. 9 Senate hearing and defended his office’s report on the deaths of veterans at the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

Griffin and VA Secretary Robert McDonald appeared before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at a hearing on the state of VA health care. At one point, Sen. Dean Heller, R.-Nev., asked Griffin about the Aug. 26 report’s statement that investigators could not “conclusively assert the absence of timely quality care” actually caused the deaths of any patients at the Phoenix facility.

Heller asked if anyone at VA inserted that sentence into the final report. Griffin said, “No one in VA dictated that sentence go into that report, period.” He said that senior staff at VA’s Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) was responsible for including those specific words.

Once the report was issued, The American Legion called for an independent investigation of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Newly elected American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm reiterated that an outside authority needed to scrutinize the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for medical treatment.

“While VAOIG has revealed how negligent and self-serving VA management can be, the report is still being perceived by some observers as less than genuine,” Helm said. “Having an independent authority investigate the situation in Phoenix will lend more credibility to the findings.”

After the Senate hearing, McDonald called Helm on the phone to discuss the situation in Phoenix. “One of the concerns I mentioned,” Helm said, “was how fast the (Phoenix wait-time) numbers dropped on that health-care side, and I wondered if there might be some gamesmanship going on.”

McDonald replied that if The American Legion sees any evidence of such gamesmanship, he wants to know about it right away. “He’s looking for accountability and so are we,” Helm said. “I think we’re on the same page there.”

The Legion’s double-barreled aim, Helm said, continues to be reducing wait times for America’s veterans in getting access to their medical care and getting their benefits claims processed. “That’s what our Veterans Crisis Command Centers are all about – putting the Legion and VA together in one location to speed the process for veterans," Helm said. "No one who served in uniform should ever have to wait years to get their benefits.”

Helm said that McDonald “seems to be engaged in the job of caring for the veteran. He’s not there for the VA, he’s not there for the government, he’s there for the veteran, and I look forward to working with him.”

New tool helps posts set up Centennial Celebration page

A PowerPoint presentation given during The American Legion's 100th Anniversary Workshop, which was hosted during the 96th National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in August, is now available on The American Legion's Centennial Celebration website.

Located under Tools, the presentation was developed and given on Aug. 25 by Bob Ferrebee of Lloyd Williams Post 41 in Berryville, Va., as a step-by-step guide to getting started on a post page. Ferrebee was an early adopter on the site - which officially launched a year ago at the 95th National Convention in Houston - and Post 41 currently has one of the most robust pages. More than 80 Legionnaires attended the workshop, which was presented by national staff members and 100th Anniversary Observance Committee members.

The 100th anniversary also had a presence in the national convention Exhibit Hall where materials (also available on the site) were handed out and assistance rendered with questions or help setting up a page – three new post shells were started right there in the hall. One of the big draws to the booth was a raffle contest for a Centennial pistol designed by A&A Engraving. Donations toward the pistol went to the National Emergency Fund – $2,345.27 was raised for NEF.

The Centennial Celebration site has 51 of the 55 Legion departments represented by at least one post; Missouri and Florida have the most posts represented. Around 670 posts in all have pages on the site. Development will soon begin on tools to help posts plan for and publicize the 15-month Centennial Celebration in their own communities.

Access, outreach issues confront Hawaii veterans

Access to care took on a new meaning Sept. 8 during an American Legion town hall meeting designed for area veterans to discuss their experiences with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A packed room at the Oahu Veterans Center in Honolulu was the setting as veterans were able to offer their criticism and praise for the VA health-care system and its staff. The biggest in the Hawaiian Islands, said one veteran with experience dealing with VA, is geography.

“The problem that I see in Hawaii is that we have islands,” said Robert B. Kent Sr., a former American Legion service officer. “Many of our veterans live on different islands. They don’t live here on Oahu, and the main part of the VA is right here on Oahu. (VA staff) gets to go to the outer islands, but not all the time.

“So many of our veterans do not have transportation. They cannot get to the (community-based outpatient clinic) or to the VA.”

Kent said the price of a plane ticket from one island to another can be as much as $200, which can provide financial hardship. He also said VA doesn’t reach out enough through media or advertising to let veterans know about their benefits. “So many of the people I talk to didn’t even know they were eligible to get VA benefits,” he said.

Other veterans spoke of similar concerns with outreach efforts, including those to younger or women veterans. Wayne Pfeffer, director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, was at the meeting and said that VA is planning a series of monthly town hall meetings on a different island.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Scott, who is stationed in Hawaii, wanted to know what is being done to make sure VA’s mistakes aren’t repeated. “What are we doing about the guys coming out (of the military now)?” Scott said. “What are we doing so that this doesn’t continue to be a cyclical, never-ending process?”

Another veteran said he applied to get a primary care physician in August 2013 and still didn’t have one. He said after the VA scandal broke in Phoenix, he started receiving phone calls and letters from VA urging him not to miss his next appointment, but he still doesn’t have a doctor assigned to him. Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, asked VA officials in attendance to get with him.

Jones said the purpose of the Legion’s town hall meetings and veterans crisis centers is to “mend” the problems that took place at VA. “There was a crisis, and we’re going to get past that crisis and get to the fix,” she said. “That’s why The American Legion is here."

The town hall kicked off a week of Legion outreach efforts in Honolulu. The Oahu Veterans Center, 1298 Kukila St., will be the site of another American Legion Veterans Crisis Command Center. Members of the Legion’s national staff – along with local Legionnaires, staff from VA facilities and volunteers from other organizations – will be on hand to assist veterans and their families. Services provided will include assistance with scheduling VA medical appointments, filing benefits claims, grief counseling, and help with enrollment into VA health care.

The center is open until 5 p.m. today, from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday and 8 a.m.-noon Friday.

“We can’t help you if you don’t come in,” Jones told veterans at the town hall meeting. “And we can’t promise we can solve everything. But if you come in, I can promise that we’ll do our best for you.”

Legion to help Texas veterans in need

The American Legion will conduct a town hall meeting in La Feria, Texas, for veterans to discuss the quality of health care they are receiving from the Department of Veterans Affairs health care center in Harlingen, Texas, and surrounding VA medical facilities.

The town hall meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 15 at American Legion Post 439 on 219 E. Commercial Ave. in La Feria. The meeting is open to the public and veterans are encouraged to attend, especially those affected by VA delays in medical care or benefit claims processing.

The American Legion will also set up a Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) at Post 439. Operating hours for the VCCC are noon to 8 p.m. on Sept. 16 and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sept. 17.

Members of the Legion’s national staff, along with local Legionnaires, staff from VA facilities and volunteers from other organizations, will be on hand at the VCCC to assist veterans and their families. Services provided will include assistance with scheduling VA medical appointments, filing benefits claims, grief counseling, and help with enrollment into VA health care.

Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said the decision was made to hold the meeting and crisis center in La Feria “because many veterans and their families have been affected by serious delays in getting access to their health care, and in getting decisions made by VA on their disability and other benefits claims.”

The American Legion, with help from the VA and other organizations, has previously operated crisis centers for veterans and family members in several locations, including Phoenix, Fayetteville and Charlotte, N.C., El Paso, Texas, St. Louis, Fort Collins, Colo., and Baltimore.

The Legion plans to operate VCCCs through next month in other areas seriously affected by delays in VA health care and claims processing.

Veteran business owners invited to free GSA Schedules class

Service-disabled veteran small business owners and veteran business owners are invited to The American Legion's Washington, D.C., office, Oct. 28-29, to attend a free two-day class on drafting General Service Administration Schedule proposals (GSA Schedules), sponsored by the Legion and Vets GSA, LLC.

GSA Schedules, also known as Federal Supply Schedules, are long-term contracts that schedule indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity of items or services from private contractors to the federal government. They are open to competitive bidding and administered by the GSA.

GSA Schedules are among the most popular government contracting vehicles and most lucrative to private contractors. The industry average for hiring a private consultant to prepare a GSA Schedule to submit for bidding can range from $4,000 to $15,000. But this event aims to provide the same service to service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses (SDVOSBs) and veteran-owned small businesses (VOSBs) free of charge.

Attendees will walk away from the class with a complete written GSA Schedule proposal, ready to be submitted to the GSA for bidding. An email helpdesk will also be available to answer attendees questions for several weeks before and after the class.

To attend, VOSBs or SDVOSBs must have less than $2 million revenue annually and must offer either products or services. Businesses will also be subject to a vetting process beforehand by Legion staff.

Prior to attending, VOSBs and SDVOSBs must also purchase an Open Ratings Report and a Digital Certificate (PKI) from GSA. The Legion cannot purchase or provide either of these. Both of these items are required to submit a GSA Schedule proposal.

Registration for the class begins Sept. 9 and ends Sept. 15. The class can accommodate the first 30 businesses registered. Veterans interested in attending should email sales@vetsgsa.com for a registration packet and general information about the class.

The class, which is also supported by the SDVOSB Council and Boost LLC, will be taught by representatives from Vets GSA, a service-disabled veteran-owned consulting firm that specializes in preparing GSA Schedule proposals and complying with applicable GSA regulations and rules.

“We have prepared hundreds of GSA Schedule proposals for all sizes of businesses from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses,” said Scott Davidson, principal consultant at Vets GSA. “In the true spirit of veterans taking care of veterans, The American Legion and Vets GSA is providing this service to expand the SDVOSB and VOSB industrial base in federal contracting."

The Legion recognizes the importance of the class and is proud to help sponsor it.

“The American Legion is happy to work with Legion members like Scott Davidson, who are committed to giving back to the veteran small business community,” said Joe Sharpe, director of the Legion's Veterans Employment & Education Division. “SDVOBs are relatively new members to federal set-aside programs for small businesses. By guiding our folks through the process of getting involved in GSA Schedules, we ensure that our small business owners obtain the requisite certifications to compete effectively in the federal contracting arena.”