Thursday, February 28, 2013

My Experience With the VA; Forrest Gump's Box of Chocolates

The Veteran's Administration, or VA for short, has been receiving its share of criticisms for the past four decades, mostly in regard to how they handle service-connected disability claims. There have been some significant improvements to philosophy and funding since about 2006, but the vast numbers of us combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, when added to our predecessors from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, have clearly overwhelmed the VA Healthcare System's ability to keep up.

My own experience with the VA has mirrored Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, in that I never know what I'm going to get. Although I was briefed very extensively about the VA benefits I was entitled to after I returned from Iraq in 2010, including five full years of free medical care, I delayed signing up because I immediately resumed my civilian job, which provided decent health insurance for me and my Spousal Unit for several hundred bucks each month. I figured that the VA Healthcare System was crowded enough with vets who didn't have access to other health insurance, so why add to that burden.

Eventually, I did sign up at the local VA facility, which is located only a few minutes from where I live. I was initially told I didn't qualify, until I pointed out (using their own literature I was handed during my outprocessing) that I was a returning combat veteran. Oops! The registration folks apologized, added me to the database, and assigned me to one of the outpatient clinics. They took my photo for my VA ID card, and told me to make an appointment for an initial exam once I had received my ID card in the mail. Well....I never got that ID card, and since my civilian health insurance was working just fine, I put it out of my mind.

My other reason to deal with the VA arose when my WWII veteran father needed assistance with his own care. He was developing dementia, which meant he could no longer live on his own. I learned about a new VA program, called the "Aid and Attendance Benefit", which provides financial support to war veterans, regardless of whether or not they have a service-connected disability, so that they may afford assisted-living or nursing home facilities. It's an excellent program, but at the time very few of the VA's employees were aware of its existence. Consequently, even though my father clearly qualified for this benefit, his application kept getting rejected on the grounds that he didn't have a service-connected disability. By this point I had a General Power of Attorney for my dad, and began following up with the Regional VA Office in Seattle. One "helpful" bureaucrat advised me to re-apply with a brand new application, instead of appealing his original request. Since I had familiarized myself with the applicable VA regulations, I quickly realized if I had followed this guy's suggestion, if my dad's claim was approved, it would not be retroactive to the original application date (which was over a year ago). I finally asked for help from our U.S. Senator, Patty Murray, who has proven herself to be one of the most relentless and effective advocates for military and veterans ever elected to Congress. Within two weeks after contacting Sen. Murray's office, the VA approved my dad's application, retroactive to his original submission date. (To the VA's credit, once Dad's benefits were granted, they have continued uninterrupted with zero bureaucratic foolishness involved.)

While I was deployed, my father had to be moved to a group home in the Phoenix, Arizona area, as he required a greater level of care than the assisted living residence up here could provide. He was signed up for medical care through the Phoenix VA Healthcare System, which provided excellent primary care. I flew down there about a year ago and met with his VA social worker, Ms. "T", who is a caring professional, and clearly passionate about serving veterans. I knew my father was in good hands with Ms. T as his advocate. Each time I had to communicate with the Phoenix VA folks, I got what I needed, including straight answers and no dumb obstacles.

When it came time to make arrangements to move my father back up here, to take up residence in the Washington State Veterans Home in Retsil, WA where he could receive full-time dementia care, part of the admissions process required me to obtain a copy of his VA medical records. Knowing that the VA has everyone's records online, I checked with the same local VA hospital where I had signed up, and was directed to the "Release of Information" office. I drove over there, and contrary to what I had been told on the phone, a different clerk said she couldn't access records from another clinic. She offered to fax my request to Phoenix, so I filled out the records release request form, and handed it to the clerk. She assured me I'd have the records in the mail within a week or so.

(While I was at the facility, I stopped by the registration office to inquire about my never-arrived VA ID card. The clerk looked up my online file, said there was no need to have my picture taken because my digital photo taken the last time was there in the file, and he'd have another card mailed to me. About 45 minutes later, a woman from the ID office called me and asked me if I could return, because they needed my photo in order to do my ID card. When I explained about the clerk saying that he had seen my photo in my computer file, she told me I was wrong, that I must have misunderstood the clerk. Needless to say, I still don't have a VA ID card.)

Anyway, three weeks went by, and no records arrived. I found the number for the Phoenix VA "Release of Information" office and called to inquire about the status of my request. "Sorry, sir, we've never received any request for your father's records," a polite fellow named "Greg" told me. "Greg" explained that I could simply fax him a letter requesting those records, (He'd verified my Power of Attorney, which I had provided the Phoenix folks when I met with them.), and they'd get 'em in the mail. I faxed off the letter as directed. Ten days later, I started to get antsy, as I feared the space the WA Vets Home was holding for my dad might be given away. I called the Phoenix Records office again, and spoke to "Connie". She verified that they had received my request, but it might be another week or so before it could get processed. I explained my dad's situation to "Connie", and her response was fast and concise: "Give me your street address, and I'll overnight the file to you." Boom! Just like that, a dedicated Phoenix VA employee cut through all the red tape, and solved my problem. Two days later, I hand-carried my father's records to the WA Vets Home Admissions Coordinator. Turned out that they needed one more form to be completed by the Phoenix VA. I scanned and emailed the form to Ms. "T", and it was faxed back to the WA Vet's Home a few hours later.

So now my father is "Good to Go", thanks in large part to the outstanding assistance from the staff at the Phoenix VA Healthcare System Team. I am very grateful for their dedication and professionalism.
As for my local VA Healthcare System Team...they have so far earned a grade of "EPIC FAIL". When it eventually comes time for me to actually use their medical services, I will likely provide an updated grade report...but for now, I'm sincerely glad that I have alternatives.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

iPhone Update: "It's ALIVE!!!"

I scheduled an appointment with a "Genius" at the local Apple Store, using the online webpage. I figured I'd call the store in advance to make sure I brought all needed hardware and documentation. Spoke to a dude who asked me when the WiFi access went sideways. When I replied, "Right after I uploaded iOS 6.1," he said, "We've seen this issue before. Try re-booting your Wireless Router."
I did that, and like magic, my iPhone was happily connected to my wireless network once again.

Fifty points to the Apple Genius guy for both fixing the problem AND getting me out of a trip to the mall! Five days later, and all systems are working fine.

Friday, February 15, 2013

So Tired of Political Crap!

One of the many downsides of having my lungs all dorked up is that I am not getting anything near my normal amounts of sleep and exercise. I can't even hold a conversation for more than 30 seconds before the coughing spasms pretty much end it.

This has left me much more short-tempered and intolerant than usual. As a result, I have become really frickin' tired of all the political bullcrap spewing out of the television and the internet. I can't seem to escape it. If I read the newspaper, easily 70% of the articles are related to some form of domestic political conflict. My Spousal Unit is fascinated by several of the programs on one particular political TV channel, so there's an hour or two of strident ranting injected into every evening. (Throw in that angry asshole Judge Judy, another program SU is fond of, and my brain is ready to explode!) The local and national TV news is of course saturated with bits about sequestration, cabinet nominations, fillibusters, and the (mostly) overweight white people showing up everywhere with handguns and assault rifles, demonstrating against any perceived infringement of their "rights" to prepare for armed insurrection against the federal government.

This glut of politically-themed fighting on the TV has led me to retreat from the living room for hours at a time. Now if it was summertime, and I wasn't coughing like a lawnmower filled with five year old gasoline, I would likely head for the pastoral pleasures of a golf course or driving range. Baseball season is on the horizon, (Pitchers and Catchers have reported to Spring Training!!!), so I'll have the relaxing refuge of listening to a ballgame on the radio very, very soon.  But it occurred to me that I have   another opportunity arising from my aversion to the tsunami of politics and stupidity, combined with the physical infirmity; I can spend those cloistered hours working on my novel!

Yep, even though sleep deprivation will reduce the overall quality of what I write, at least I'll have something to edit once I am again "Fully Functional". Shouldn't be much different from cranking out all those term papers in college at the eleventh hour, typing away (when we relied upon actual typewriters, and the clacking sound helped keep us awake.) and producing pages of brilliant critical thinking, which often turned out to be less than brilliant when viewed in the cold light of professorial scrutiny.

Looks like a short-term solution is at hand. Let's get to work!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thanks For All the iPhone Suggestions!

Just wanted to update y'all, and add my appreciation for all of the great suggestions for getting my iPhone back to a fully-functional state.

The best advice came from the daughter of one of my high school buddies...She used to work for Apple, and suggested making an appointment with a "Genius" at the local Apple Store. (We have one of those just 30 minutes away, so that's an easy mission.) If I make it clear that this is a software issue, not a "Sorry, gotta charge you big bucks to fix this" hardware problem, they should take care of me, gratis. Thanks, Nanelle! (And thanks, FreqGod!)

By the way, the patch that Apple released to help mitigate some of the iOS 6.1 insanity is for iPhone 4S only...and since I have an iPhone 4, it won't work.

All in all, everyone's good ideas (You are all "Geniuses" in my book!) saved me from applying my own "patch"...made of C-4.  Any solution not involving a loud detonation will keep my Spousal Unit and neighbors happy, not to mention the local gendarmes.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How My iPhone Went From Handy Companion to Useless Piece of Crap

I generally like Apple products. I've had a MacIntosh desktop computer for all but three years of my home computing life.  They are usually easy to use, and packed with decent features, which helped overcome the paucity of software able to be used in my Macs.

When it was finally time to buy a "smartphone", I naturally gravitated toward an iPhone, as our current desktop computer is an iMac, and I have a pretty good collection of music on iTunes. I needed a phone which could take the place of a personal laptop when I traveled on business. The iPhone 4 that I got with a government-discounted phone plan has worked very well in the three years I've owned it...until now.

The problems started when I finally updated from Apple's iOS 5 operating system to iOS 6. Actually, iOS 6.0 worked okay, although there were a few minor challenges. The WiFi still worked reliably and connected automatically at home and hotels, Starbucks, and other hotspots. Less than a month later, I unintentionally clicked on the popup which downloaded iOS 6.1. I tried to abort the download, but it was too late. "Well, iOS 6.0 was okay, so this ought to be just fine!" I thought to myself. I'm an idiot.

Within minutes, my iPhone refused to connect to my home WiFi router. 3G signal strength was also mysteriously cut in half. "Hmm", I mused, "Perhaps I should start fresh and reset my phone, then download iOS 6.0, returning my phone to its happy state. NO CAN DO, DUMMY!  I went on the Apple Support website, and posted a question in the "iPhone Community". Most of the responses went something like this: "Dude, you are so screwed! Did you try resetting the phone, then re-downloading the iOS 6.1 software? It didn't work for me, but maybe YOU'LL be lucky." Well, I wasn't.

I have reset the phone three times. The WiFi occasionally works for about six minutes before a little popup message proclaims, "Unable to access this WiFi network."  I've tried turning the iPhone off, then turning it back on. No joy there either. Now when I return to the message boards on the Apple website, I see hundreds of complaints similar (and some far worse) to my own. Most of the problems seem linked to iOS 6.1...more than enough evidence for me to make an arrest, if this was a criminal investigation.

At work, a few fellow iPhone users have talked about buying an iPhone 5, the newest offering, as they think the latest operating system must have been designed to go well with the newest iPhone, but not so much with the older models. I have no idea if this theory is true, but I know for sure that I won't follow along. It's more likely that I will just use the iPhone as a "Dumb Phone", and get used to lugging my laptop with me when I travel in the future. When it comes time to replace this electronic paperweight, I have grave doubts that the new phone will have an Apple logo. Thankfully, my 120 GB iPod still works well, so if I really feel like sending this iPhone to Digital Valhalla, there will be no regrets or second thoughts of rehabilitation.

In the meantime, if any of you readers have a solid suggestion for fixing the damn thing, I'll welcome any and all of 'em.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Author and War Correspondent Nathan Webster Shifts the "Full Metal Jacket" Paradigm

Nathan Webster is a Gulf War veteran and supremely-talented war correspondent who served several embeds in  Operation Iraqi Freedom. In his really smart blog, "Can't Give This War Away", he recently posted an analysis of the film classic, "Full Metal Jacket", and the novel which spawned it.

When I saw the tweet where Nate Webster referred to FMJ's director Stanley Kubrick's "cowardice", I was prepared to yell "HERESY!!!", for FMJ has always seemed to me to be gutsy and powerful. After reading Webster's insightful comparisons and I saw what the movie could have been, I had to agree with his point 100%.
Read his post, and let me know if you agree with Nate Webster as well... (Click on the link below)

Now that I've successfully click-whored a few visitors, I will explain...