With federal investigators looking into a whistleblower complaint that disability applications were wrongly deleted from Atlanta’s Veterans Affairs Health Eligibility Center, advocacy groups are offering their support to help get benefits awarded in full.
Georgians having problems getting into the VA health care system can turn to the state Department of Veterans Service for assistance in receiving benefits under the “vast, frequently changing, and complex framework” of federal laws, the agency said in a news release.
The department works with the VA to help Georgia veterans receive free personal assistance in filing for benefits and other earned entitlements at any of its 50 field offices statewide, including those at the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home in Augusta and the Burke County Office Park in Waynesboro.
“We exist to serve those who have served,” Georgia Veterans Service Commissioner Pete Wheeler said in the release. “Our job is to explain in detail federal and state benefits and, if entitled, assist veterans and their dependents in obtaining them. We have certified, experienced personnel whose mission is to do just that – advise and assist veterans, their dependents, and survivors.”
The department said each claim submitted is processed by VA and answered with an explanation of its approval or denial. The state Veterans Service Claims and Appeals Division, in the VA Regional Office Building in Decatur, monitors claims filed and, when needed, assists with the preparation and presentation of appeals.
Atlanta program specialist Scott Davis testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs last week that benefit applications for more than 10,000 veterans may have been improperly purged from the Health Eligibility Center’s national database in DeKalb County.
The center doesn’t process all applications, but helps manage the national enrollment computer system and offers enrollment guidance for veteran hospitals nationwide, including the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta.
Wheeler urged all Georgia veterans, regardless of when or where they served, to visit a state field office for information concerning possible eligibility for earned federal and state benefits and assistance in applying for them. He emphasized that no veterans benefit is awarded automatically – all must be applied for.
“The VA pays a veteran exactly what he or she is entitled to by the law, and no more,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to ensure Georgia veterans and their dependents receive all earned benefits to which they are entitled.”
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest nonprofit organization for post-9/11 veterans and their families, also announced they plan to use new data and mobile tools to improve services and shed light on VA issues, such as long wait times for health care and other benefits.
The organization announced this week the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is providing $500,000 to support the production of its “Community of Veterans,” a social media platform that will provide access to resources such as counseling services and interactive benefit guides. A mobile version of the initiative will also be built.
“Our vets, like the ones that came before us, are worthy of this investment,” said Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA’s CEO and founder, in the announcement. “This new plan is integral to revealing these issues to the American public and helping vets find solutions. It will make things better for our community. We hope more organizations and people will join in to support this work.”
Funding will also go towards expanding a Web site (thewaitwecarry.org) the group launched in June 2013 to let veterans tell their story about claims and share data about the yearlong wait times they faced for a disability rating.
After a year of public pressure and work, the VA backlog now stands at 267,000 claims, down almost 50 percent from last year.
“IAVA is leveraging public information and data to solve real-world problems,” said Michael Maness, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism and media innovation. “The tools and insights developed through this project can be shared with people using data and technology to inform their communities. In this way we can increase public awareness and understanding of a range of issues and encourage more civic engagement.”