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Dave Spiva, Spring 2014

San Diego VA implementing changes to better serve veterans

The Army is planning to cut its size, a size which has not been seen since before World War II. The cuts mean more service members than normal will be discharged every day. The influx of service members becoming veterans will potentially rise due to the cuts. The Marines are also downsizing this year.

With all the cuts happening in the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs is backlogged. For those who already have waited for their benefits, some may be reevaluated due to budget cuts.

VA ratings system

San Diego Regional Benefit Office in Mission Valley

The San Diego Regional Benefit Office in Mission Valley, where claims are processed for the region’s veterans. Photo by Dave Spiva.

The VA goes by a rating system to reflect the severity of a veteran’s disability. The rating is intended to go by how much a veteran’s impairment impacts his or her ability to work as a civilian. A rating is used to set the amount for disability compensation, which range from increments of 0 percent to 100 percent.

Michelle Petrill, a Navy veteran receiving VA medical benefits, was medically discharged in 2011 for a condition called Lupus, a disease where the body’s immune system attacks normal body tissue.

“When I got out, everything from the military seemed to transfer over without a problem,” Petrill said.

The VA initially had her at a 60 percent disability rating. However, in August of last year, Petrill learned that her rating was changed to 10 percent. Decreasing a disability rating is not common, according to San Diego VA spokesperson Alejandro Mendiolaflores.

“If medical evidence shows a person’s disability has gotten better, it is possible that we would propose to reduce the percentage of disability,” Mendiolaflores said.

Typically, the VA would propose a reduction and allow the claimant 60 days to respond and submit any evidence to support their position, Mendiolaflores added.

“I was surprised to see that they had changed me to 10 percent,” Petrill said.

The VA plans to reduce backlogs with new record system

A graphic of the San Diego VA's progress of reduction backlogged veterans over the past year.

A graphic of the San Diego VA’s progress of reduction backlogged veterans over the past year.

The VA is the second largest US department. It handles claims for benefits such as housing and business loans, education and health care and insurance. The VA handles pensions as well as compensation for medically related conditions.

One of the VA’s biggest issues has been with its medical record system, an outdated system that is cited by the US government as the cause of the VA backlogs.

As of March 2014, the average days waited by veterans at the San Diego VA for processing and receiving benefits are 168.9 days.
According to VA documents, once the plan of implementing a new electronic records system is complete, it will greatly reduce the backlogs by 2015. The plan is focused on eliminating the backlog for disability claims and processing theme within 125 days.

The San Diego VA has made progress in the past year by cutting down on the number to cut down the amount of people waiting for benefits to be approved, or disapproved depending on their situation.

“We are training our employees better, we are doing robust quality assurance, we have organized better, and we have mandated overtime for employees processing claims,” Mendiolaflores said.

In light of these practices, the San Diego VA has dropped from 29,000 claims, with 20,250 pending more than 125 days, to 16,900 claims, with 8,100 pending 125 days or more since March 2013.

VA transparency

In recent months, the US House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has called on the VA to be more transparent with statistics.

In an effort to be more transparent with the public, the VA has set up ASPIRE, a publicly accessible internet database with statistics on specific VA branches across the county, Mendiolaflores said.

ASPIRE lets veterans compare VA hospital wait times, learn how long they can expect to wait for benefits to be approved and view the differences in wait times between regions.

DOD and VA medical record integration falls by the wayside

The original plan of the record system was for the VA and Pentagon to create a program to develop an electronic record system, and be implemented in 2017. Now, the two largest US departments made the decision to change to the program.

According to US Government Accountability Office documents, the plan to create an integrated VA and DOD integrated electronic health record system has been “abandoned.” The two departments are now in the process of modernizing their current separated systems.

The VA plans to have the new system up by September while the DOD plans to have its new system by the end of fiscal year 2016.

Non-medical benefits by the VA

Victor Martin, a medically retired Navy veteran,sitting on the porch of his house he purchased with a VA home loan.

The house Victor Martin, a medically retired Navy veteran, purchased using a VA home loan. Photo by Dave Spiva.

Victor Martin, a medically retired Navy veteran, took out a VA home loan in 2011, a loan every veteran is granted at least once, to buy his home in La Mesa. Such benefits applied to the number of states, here one can get the best rate on a VA loan in Texas, for example.

“It was a great process,” Martin said. “It was extremely easy, and the VA was very accessible.”

The Post 9/11 GI Bill was implemented in 2008. Anyone who has served at least 90 days of active duty who service after Sept. 12, 2001 and received an honorable or medical discharge is eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Kevin Genest, a medically discharged Navy veteran, uses the VA for receiving his Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits he earned during his service.

Getting it started initially was a little bit of a hassle,” said Kevin Genest. “For the most part, I never had any issues with it.”

Not only does the VA provide healthcare to veterans, the VA also handles of benefits such as: education, pensions, insurance and housing loans.

MULTIMEDIA: Thousands of San Diego area veterans and service members rely on the VA for health care and other benefits. Three San Diego area veterans talk about their experience applying and receiving various VA benefits.



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