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.

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