Augusta veteran fears disability benefits may be revoked

 

Some veterans wait years for the federal government to award them 100 percent disability for service-connected injuries and illnesses, and apparently there is no guarantee that the monthly payments will last a lifetime once approved.

Since 1997, Jesus Mar­ti­nez, a 78-year-old retired Marine staff sergeant in Augusta, has received a monthly $2,858 check from the Department of Veterans Affairs for post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he was diagnosed after 20 years of service.

Now the VA has reopened his claim and is “strongly encouraging” the Vietnam veteran to send information and evidence in support of his disability, according to a letter mailed to him April 21 from the agency’s Regional Benefit Office in Atlanta.

Nine days later, the office scheduled Martinez for a disability evaluation June 20 at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center to examine his health and medical evidence. A notice confirming the evaluation stated: “Because this appointment has been scheduled at the
request of the regional office and may have an impact on your benefits, it will not be possible to reschedule this exam.”

“It upsets me greatly,” said Mar­tinez, who served from 1953 to 1973. “Since then, I have been really shaky.”

He wrote back to the Atlanta office May 6 saying he considered the original letter a threat of the VA’s “absolute and elite unquestionable authority” and that it awakened suicidal thoughts and painful war memories and made him paranoid of a possible witch hunt against him.

Velda McCoy, a spokeswoman for the VA Regional Office in Atlanta, could not comment on Martinez’s case because of privacy laws but said there might be instances when the VA determines “there is a need to verify either the continued existence or the current severity of a disability.”

“In those instances, a routine future examination may be requested,” she said. “If re-examination shows the severity of the disability has changed, then the evaluation of the service-connected disability may change.”

McCoy said if an evaluation results in a reduction or end to compensation payments, the veteran is notified and given 60 days to provide additional evidence to show that compensation payments should continue at their present level. If none is received, the award will be reduced or ended effective the last day of the month in which
the 60-day period ends, she said.

The 2013 VA benefits handbook shows Martinez is already receiving more than the maximum $2,816 for 100 percent disability.

A letter dated Aug. 13, 1997, confirms the VA granted Martinez 100 percent service connection for post-traumatic stress disorder, and the agency’s benefit hotline stated Thursday that his most recent payment was processed May 30.

The average wait time for a veteran to have a disability claim processed is about 165 days, according to VA estimates, but the letter sent to Martinez said the agency could make a decision on his claim after 30 days if it does not hear from him.

McCoy said claims generally are not changed after initial approval but that every situation is unique.

“Unless the condition improves or the veteran has children or gets married, in general once service connection is determined and payments are awarded, that’s what they collect,” she said.

Martinez has an honorable discharge, a Combat Action Ribbon and a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry. He said he does not plan to attend the evaluation and just wants to receive the benefits for which he was originally approved.

He has copied the chairman and ranking members of the House Committee on Vete­rans Affairs on all correspondence to the VA for help. McCoy said the Atlanta office will reach out to Martinez.

“I should receive what I was first promised,” he said.

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