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  • Vets Get Billed


    Approximately 1,300 disabled Veterans were overpaid thousands of dollars under a Veterans Affairs Department education benefits program last year and now must figure out a way to pay that money back.

    Why? Mostly because staff at VA regional offices didn’t check emails, a recent investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General has found.

    The overpayments happened during the 2016-2017 academic year under the VA’s second-largest education program, Dependents’ Educational Assistance, which pays up to $1,224 for schooling per month to spouses and children of totally and permanently disabled Veterans or deceased service members.

    Veterans who are 100 percent service disabled are eligible to receive monthly stipends of $266 for each college-aged child they have in school as part of their disability check from the VA. But these benefits cannot overlap with DEA.

    Yet, in it at least 70 percent of cases during the 2016-17 school year, they did, in large part because emails from Veterans claim examiners were going unread at many VA regional offices.

    Now, Vets who were overpaid owe VA a total of $4.5 million for the department’s mistake — an average of more than $3,400 each.

    This represents “a hardship for seriously disabled Veterans,” the report states.

    In its review of all 58 VA regional offices, Office of Inspector General auditors found that as of May 2018, 25 had an approximate total of 4,600 unread emails dating back to August 2016. The majority of these emails, 67 percent, were about DEA benefits and potentially required adjustments to Veterans’ claims to keep them from being overpaid.

    In interviews recorded in the report, VA staff at seven of these offices said they had not been monitoring mailboxes related to the DEA program before the audit.

    For example, a representative from the Oakland, California, office “stated that the mailbox had not been monitored for three years because managers had been reassigned, but not their mailbox monitoring duties.”

    Another in Houston said the DEA inbox was “not considered a workload priority” because of other workload targets the office was required to meet, according to the report.

    Already, the VA has instituted a new policy requiring regional offices to check DEA-related emails twice a month, Susan Carter, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email.

    Additionally, the VA Office of Field Operations has committed to sending weekly reminders to check the emails to the regional offices and will likely incorporate oversight of this into future site visits, according to the report.

    Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for Wounded Warrior Project, said the organization is concerned about the impact these overpayments will have on the affected Veterans and plans to work with VA on the department’s plans to remedy the situation.

    “We would hope that the VA would avoid any significant disruptions or financial burdens on the recipients,” he said in an email.

    Carter said the agency has already identified the Veterans who were overpaid and expects to complete all payment adjustments by June 30. Veterans will have several payment options available.

    “VA is implementing improvements that will focus on the timely establishment of compensation adjustments, ensuring receipt of DEA program benefit notifications by VA regional office staff, and promptly identifying and rectifying payment duplications,” Carter said.

    The inspector general’s report also recommends VA move to an electronic system to better identify when there’s a potential for Veterans to get paid out of both programs in order to cut down on overpayments.

    If delays continue, the report states, the VA could end up paying another $22.5 million in improper payments over the next five years.


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  • Service Connected Disability


    Service Connected Disability is a benefit that exists to compensation you for an injury

    Speaking plainly, a service connected disability is an injury, illness, or impairment that was caused or made worse because of some aspect of your service. This can be a distinct experience, or it can be something that occurs over time.

    The benefit itself exists to assign and provide a monetary reimbursement for the level of impairment that is said to be connected to your military service.

    You can collect Service Connected Disability concurrently with SSDI but probably not SSI

    SSI is a means tested benefit, meaning the amount you receive (if you receive any) is based strictly on your assets and level of income. However, SSDI – a similar benefit in many ways & also administered by the Social Security Administration, can be awarded at the same time as service connected disability compensation.

    This means that a Veteran could, and many do, collect SSDI for an injury that makes them unable to work, and collect a service connected compensation at the same time.

    *Note, you cannot usually collect SSI w/ VA benefits – and if you do, your award is usually split or offset.

    The wait time on appeal tends to be longer than Social Security Claims

    During the surge of claims that peaked around 2008-2015 it was normal for an initial claim to take almost a year, and for an appeal to a denial or improperly awarded claim to take several years. In many cases, wait times are down significantly. However, it may still be very geographically dependent how long your claims and appeals will take.

    Another factor affecting the length of claims is the complexity of Veterans claims. Many Veterans claims contain multiple claims with multiple sources of origination. Each of these injuries/impairments are essentially a separate claim unto themselves. And each of those claims can be appealed, mis-rated, etc. Veterans often have several claims for several injuries going at one time. And these claims are not always combined into a single decision, or timeline for decisions.

    Many Claims Advocates are Overworked

    As a result of the complexity of Veterans claims, and also in part to the nature of volunteer work, many Veterans advocates find themselves quickly overworked as they try to help Veterans with service connected disability claims.

    These advocates, VSO’s, are often responsible for doing other benefits based assistance in addition to VA claims. Including education, burial assistance, and fielding a plethora of questions from Veterans of all ages. Most of them have a lot of different directions they’re being pulled in, in addition to providing representation on claims.

    Despite this, many of the advocates are great. But some are not in the best place to provide support for Veterans disability claims. You should keep this in mind when choosing who to work with for your claim.

    There is a Lot of Information About How to Win a VA Disability Claim

    Forums, Reddit, legal blogs like this one, and so many more… are great places to find information about filing for and appealing a VA disability claim. It is possible to do this on your own, but it can easily become a complicated mess of moving parts too.

    Each Veteran that pursues these benefits finds a different path. Some of those paths lead to frustration, and we’re here to help with that.

    Some great places to start include:

    Not all the Information about Wining a VA Disability Claim is Correct

    The links above are great places to look for information on winning a VA disability claim. However, just as many claims have been butchered by bad information as have been successfully pursued with good. One of the biggest challenges with going solo on your VA claim is that you usually have little experience to assess whether a piece of advice is good or bad. Much of the claims process makes sense when you have the perspective to see how it got to be the way it is today. However, if this is your first, and hopefully only, foray into advocating a claim – be very careful whose advice you follow. And for the sake of your own claim, double check advice and cross reference.

    ^This is the reason bringing on a great advocate is good idea.

    The VA has Streamlined Several of the Processes in Recent Years

    It used to be that filing a VA service connected disability clam meant sending in a snail mail form filled out in ink. And it meant submitting all your supporting documentation in large parcel deliveries directly to the VA regional office handling your claim. Fortunately a couple changes have occurred recently to help Veterans and their advocates.

    One of the biggest improvements to the filing process is centralized evidence intake. It used to be the case that you had to submit your evidence directly to the regional office of record. This meant 50+ processes at 50+ facilities, and reports of lost (or unopened) files were rampant. Now you can send your supporting evidence to one location and it will be scanned into your claim c-file, queued up for review, and you sometimes even get a receipt that the files were delivered.

    Another fantastic improvement is the newish ability to file and review a claim online (when the system is working). Now you can see exactly where in the process your claim is.

    The Burden of Proof is: “As Likely as Not”

    One of the most important things to know about Veterans disability claims is that you don’t have to prove aspects of them “beyond a reasonable doubt.” You do not have to be 100% certain of minuscule details, you only have to believe that a cause is “as likely as not” (aka 50/50) the root of your current conditions. We cover this a lot in some of our other blog articles, but if you take one thing away from this list, remember this phrase, “As Likely As Not.”

    Veterans Have aLot of Choices

    As you work to develop your service claim, you have a lot of choices for who you’d like to work with. From a friend, to a Veterans Service Officer, to a VA Accredited Claims Agent, to even an VA Accredited Attorney – there’s no shortage of people who can provide assistance. However, not all assistance is created equally. Here’s how you can identify who to work with and how to assess if they’re who you want to work with.

    Service Connected Claims are Handled through the VBA

    The VA is made up of three parts: the Veterans Benefits Administration, Veterans Health Administration, and National Cemetery Association. Most benefits, including service connected compensation, move through the VBA. Whereas the VHA usually focuses solely on health care administration.

    Once you’ve achieved a certain threshold of disability compensation (usually 30%), some benefits are available through the VHA. In particular, we’re thinking about Vocational Rehabilitation, which is an educational benefit administered by the VHA. This is one of the best, essentially secret, benefits for those who have a service connected disability rating.

    Receiving a Service Connected Claim Qualifies You for other Benefits

    In addition to the Vocational Rehabilitation (Voc. Rehab) that we talked about just before this section, there is an enormous number of benefits specific to service connected disabled Veterans. Many states, schools, counties, and businesses provide discounts, free-passes, licenses, and preferential treatment for service connected disabled Veterans.

    Here’s A Benefit Guide for Veterans With Service-Connected Disabilities

    While You Can Still Serve with a Claim, you Cannot Double-Dip

    There are a number of Veterans still serving in the National Guard or Reserve. Some of these prior active duty troops currently have a service connected disability rating. It is typically incumbent upon a specific command to determine when an individual’s ratings preclude them from being able to carryout the capacity of their job. In a great number of cases, these troops can still function at a high level even with their partial disability rating.

    One thing to note; however, is that while actively serving – even if it’s only for a drill weekend – you cannot collect a wage for military service AND service connected compensation. This usually means offsetting the amount of compensation received from the VA, or through DFAS.

    If You Have More than 70% Service Connection and Cannot Work, You Should Consider TDIU

    TDIU is short for Total Disability Individual Unemployability. This is a rating that takes into account your constellation of previous ratings and recognizes that they pose a total barrier to you being able to work.

    There’s a quirk about the way the VA does service connected ratings that makes this a great benefit to know about. As you can surmise from the paragraph above, TDIU provides the beneficiary with a total disability rating even if they are less than 100% by individual ratings (also known as by schedule). So, you get paid 100% and receive all the benefits of a 100% service connected rating, even though you are technically less than 100% service connected.

    This quirk we’re talking about is the VA math used to assign ratings. If you have 50% for PTSD for instance and you are awarded a second rating of 30% for a physical injury to your back, you might assume that 50% + 30% = 80%. This isn’t how the VA does it. What the VA does is take your biggest disability rating and make it your core rating. In the case above 50%. The next highest rating is applied to the remainder between that rating and 100%. So, 100% – 50% (for your PTSD) = 50%. Then 30% of the remaining 50% = 15%.   50%+15% = 65% (rounded up to 70%).

    In the example above, you have 50%+30% = 70% (65%). Think about what it would take to get that to 100% going by adding disability ratings. You could have 50% (PTSD) + 30% (Back) + 20% Shoulders + 20% Knees + 10% Tinnitus and still only rate: ~80% service connection. To get to 100% from here you’d need an additional rating of 60+% from somewhere else. This exact situation is why TDIU exists. You can chase down 100% by different body parts and never reach it, but still be completely unable to work because of your disabling physical and mental health challenges.

    *You can collect a service connected disability compensation and SSDI at the same time!

    Using the DRO Process is Usually a Great Idea

    VA disability appeals can follow a couple paths on their way to a Board of Veterans Appeals hearing. One optional path is to request a DRO review of your claim prior to formally requesting a BVA hearing. A DRO (Decision Review Officer) is a senior adjudicator (often retired from and/or on contract with the VA).   They provide a second in-depth look at your claim and appeal, and you can even request a hearing, or even informal discussion, with the DRO. If you have a helpful DRO, your claim can be unscrewed prior to needing to go to a BVA hearing.

    One of the most important things you can ask a DRO is, “what would you need to see with this claim in order to approve it for what I’m asking?” When/if you get an answer, do it! You can argue with the DRO until you’re blue in the face, but your best bet is to help them help you – you still have a BVA hearing if you strike out at the DRO level.

    You Can Waive Your Right to a DRO Review

    One of the biggest drawbacks to requesting a DRO review is timeliness. It’s not necessarily the case that they take a long time, it is going to take more time though than to request a BVA hearing in lieu of DRO review. Some claimants want to push an appeal to the BVA as fast as possible, but doing so creates unique risk in a claim.

    Once the BVA has made a decision it becomes a lot harder to overturn, and doing so can either cost you more $ in the form of representation fees at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, or in the form of losing your claim date and having to start all over again on a claim that was already previously denied by the BVA.

    In many/most cases, there’s little to gain and a lot to potentially lose by waiving your right to a DRO review. Nonetheless, you have the right to do so.

    Your Appeal can be Granted at Any Point But Only Denied Formally

    This statement might appear ambiguous at first. Meaning, a granted appeal would be just as formal as a denial. What we’re going for here is to convey that at any point during your appeal, your appeal may be granted. The appeal does not need to be heard by a BVA judge in order to be granted, a DRO, or other adjudicator can determine that the threshold of evidence/requirements have been met and issue a rating decision.

    And, in contrast, a denial of the appeal can only be issued by a BVA judge. If you’ve worked the process well, went through a DRO, submitted additional evidence where necessary, added context and reviews similar cases and still don’t have a favorable decision when going to meet with the BVA judge, don’t despair – that happens often. You can disagree with everyone up to the point of the BVA and still get your appeal ultimately granted.

    You Don’t Have to Use an Advocate

    You can work with a lot of people to help get your claim or appeal granted. However, you can also go it alone. There’s no requirement to utilize an advocate in your claim or appeal. Choose to work with an advocate because you want to and when you see the value in doing so.

    Your Award is Determined Based of Very Specific Criteria

    There is a ratings schedule (table) for impairments.   For instance, if you lost a finger due to some experience in the military, the finger you lost, the loss of function for your hand, the grip strength measurement, and other factors all combine on a table (codified in law) to provide your rating. So, if you wonder how something is 10% and why it wasn’t rated at 30%, getting to know this table will tell you everything you need to demonstrate to understand the rating provided.

    This table is also very useful if you are disagreeing with a rating percentage. It’s normal to have two people see a ratings criteria applied in different ways. This table is one of the things that will truly strengthen your appeal claim, if understood & used.

    There’s Usually One of Three Things Missing in a Denied Claim

    If a claim was denied, it is typically one of three reasons.

    1. Failure to demonstrated service nexus
    2. No measurable current condition
    3. Your current condition & history since service don’t clearly show a connection.

    Here’s a great article describing this more.

    Briefly though:

    1. Means something happened during your service, you have to demonstrate this in some way
    2. Something has to exist today, an impairment of some type
    3. Establishes a clear path between service injury/ailment and current condition and takes into account (or discredits) other possible explanations.

    Doctors, Providers, and Friends Don’t Know What This Is

    The items above, the three things most often missing in denied claims, are usually not understood by your treating doctors, therapists, friends, and most other Veterans. Successful appeals are not usually a matter of how much evidence is provided, but more often a matter of what type and how it supports the whole claim.

    The tendency is to try to provide an overwhelming amount of doctor statements, buddy statements, and other similar evidence. But without context or an understanding of how it fills in the gaps in the originally denied claim, it’s just as likely to confuse and possible harm your appeal as it is to help it.

    Service Connected Disability Doesn’t Usually Mean you Cannot Work

    While various levels of ratings might reflect an inability to do certain tasks, with the exception of TDIU, a service connected disability rating typically does not reflect an inability to work. Some ratings thresholds might be based upon their impact to employment.

    For instance 70% for a mental health rating is usually reserved for levels of impairment that provided significant to almost total inability to work.

    But for most ratings, the question of how or whether you work is not related at all to your compensation claim. With the exception that allowanced that have to be made for you to be successful at work might be something you want to highlight for your claim.

    Service Connected Disability Compensation is Tax Free

    Unlike military retirement pay (non medical), service connected disability compensation is tax free.

    Service Connected Disability Compensation is Different from Non-Service Connected Pension

    A non-service connected pension is similar in many ways to SSI. Generally it is for a disabling condition that is no service connected. Unlike service connected compensation, a pension is all or nothing (no % ratings), and it is means tested (based upon income and assets). You normally would be able to have been awarded SSI (even if you haven’t applied). For this reason, a lot of potential recipients have concurrent claims with Social Security, though the maximum benefit will be the highest of the two and not a combination of the two (as in the case of SSDI & compensation).

    This is all a bit complicated, but we’re more than happy to break it down for you if you contact us here. You really want to be aware of overpayments when dealign with both the VA & Social Security Administration.

    In Many Cases you cannot collect both Service Connected Disability Compensation and Pension

    Service connected disability compensation provides you a monetary reimbursement for injuries or illnesses that have an effect on you today. A pension is a ‘backstop’ benefit for other disabling conditions that stop you from being able to work. The pension is means tested, meaning it is based upon your assets and income – and if you had a disability rating and associated compensation, that would be considered income. This will reduce the amount of the pension, in an offset like manner.

    There is No Limit to When You Can File a VA Disability Claim

    You can begin the process of filing your service connected disability claim at any age, no matter how long you’ve been separated from military service. Though, the further you get from military service the harder it often gets to demonstrate that your current conditions are a result (in part or in whole) of experiences you had while serving.

    As the saying goes: “make hay while the sun shines.” Filing today is going to be far easier than filing tomorrow. Evidence will be easier to produce, a service nexus will be easier to identify, and you have more time to work through the process…because in some cases it can take longer than you would expect.


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  • AO BWN Battle Exposure


    • Tens of thousands of Navy Veterans are excluded from VA benefits related to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam war.
    • A bill making its way through Congress would extend benefits to cover blue-water Veterans, who were stationed in ships off the Vietnamese coast.
    • Early this month, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter to lawmakers asking to stop the bill, saying its provisions are based on sympathy instead of science.
    • Veterans and their advocates are firing back, flooding the Senate with letters supporting the bill.

    Veterans groups are pushing a bill making its way through Congress that would extend VA benefits to tens of thousands US Navy Veterans who were potentially exposed to Agent Orange while serving off the coast of Vietnam. The bill is the latest glimmer of hope for Veterans who have fought for decades to receive the benefit, and would finally recognize their exposure to the toxic herbicide but come at an estimated cost of $5.5 billion to US taxpayers.

    The VA is attempting to delay this provision, saying that this vast increase in health care costs should only come after more study, which is likely to publish next year.

    "Science does not support the presumption that blue water Navy Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange," said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a letter to the Senate. The letter is yet another roadblock facing Vietnam Veterans who claim their health has suffered due to exposure.

    But the Veterans are fighting back. As of Thursday morning, Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Veterans affairs committee, has received at least three letters from advocates urging the Senate to pass the bill. They say the VA is "cherry-picking" evidence and overestimating the bill's true cost.

    Agent Orange was one of several chemical herbicides used during the Vietnam War to destroy enemy cover and food crops. Although primarily delivered via aircraft, the defoliant was also carried on vehicles, back-mounted equipment, and sprayed from ships.

    Operation Ranch Hand lasted about a decade before a scientific study reported that one of the chemicals caused birth defects in lab animals. The military stopped its use of herbicides in 1971; throughout the next decade Veterans began reporting instances of cancer and birth defects in their children.

    The legitimacy of their claims would be argued for the next 20 years, until the Agent Orange Act of 1991 directed the VA to conduct research into the chemical's potential side effects. In the decades since, Vietnam Veterans have slowly started to gain recognition of their Agent Orange exposure and its sometimes life-threatening consequences.

    As recently as 2010, the VA extended the list of diseases it would recognize as being linked to the herbicide. Just three years ago, the agency started accepting claims for Veterans who served in Agent Orange-contaminated aircraft in the post-Vietnam era.

    But since 2002, the VA took what advocates and Veterans say was a step backwards by invalidating claims presented by blue-water Veterans, saying there was no conclusive scientific evidence that the Vets, who served in warships off the coast, were ever exposed to Agent Orange.

    VA: Too much money, not enough science

    The question is whether the Veterans were exposed to the herbicide through chemical runoff that made its way into the South China Sea and was then converted into drinking water through the ships' distillation plants.

    Where the ships were located makes all the difference.

    The VA discredits arguments that US ships made water close enough to land to have used contaminated water. According to the Institute of Medicine, which is now known as the National Academy of Medicine, any chemical runoff would likely have been diluted by coastal waters before reaching the ships' intakes. But, as reported in extensive coverage by ProPublica, Veterans have said ships often distilled water well within that range.

    Surprisingly, both sides of the ordeal — the VA, which claims blue water Veterans were not exposed and Veterans advocacy groups that say they were — use the same IOM study to argue their side.

    That's because the IOM merely states it is "possible" the Navy Vets were exposed.

    The VA now says that's exactly why they should wait before extending benefits to blue-water Veterans.

    In a Senate hearing on August 1, Dr. Paul Lawrence, the VA under secretary for benefits, noted this as just one of three reasons the VA opposes the bill.

    One of the provisions would increase the fee charged to borrowers under the VA's home loan program. Lawrence said the VA is opposed to "increasing the costs that some Veterans must pay to access their benefits."

    He also maintained that the increased loan fees could not offset the costs associated with an extension of Agent Orange-related benefits. Secretary Wilkie's letter reinforced this idea, stating that Congress had underestimated the health care costs by a whopping $5.4 billion. He also argued that the addition of tens of thousands of eligible Veterans would only exacerbate an already extensive backlog of Agent Orange-related claims.

    These arguments echo one made in July, just days before the Senate hearing, by former VA Secretary and Vietnam Navy Veteran Anthony Principi. In an op-ed published in USA Today, Principi argued that Congress should stand on the side of science and pass "sensible laws that maintain the integrity of our legislative process."

    Veterans and advocates say that's 'poppycock'

    The Veterans won't face this battle alone.

    The Senate is hearing from a resounding chorus of supporters who say the VA is using a typical stall tactic.

    "These Vietnam Veterans have waited too long. It is time for us as a country to do the right thing," former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin wrote. Dr. Shulkin, who was fired by President Donald Trump in late March, said this bill is not driven by sympathy as the VA claims, but by a conscientious desire to uphold "our country's responsibility for caring for those who have borne the battle."

    Another letter, cosigned by four Veterans organizations, pointed out that it was the VA's "erroneous decision" to disqualify blue-water Veterans in the first place, and that the science is on their side.

    "The IOM found that there is not a scientific basis to exclude blue water Navy Veterans," the letter said.

    In his letter addressed to the Senate, Dr. Shulkin recognized the legitimacy of both sides of this nuanced issue.

    "The answer must not be to simply deny benefits," he wrote. "When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us."

    The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act soared through the House of Representatives with a vote of 382-0. When — or even if — it will become law now rests in the hands of the Senate which, as of Thursday, has yet to decide.


    {jcomments on}

  • GI Bill 002


    Thousands of Veterans who attended a vocational school or college that closed will have their benefits restored under the "Forever GI Bill," experts say.

    Lawmakers this month sent an expanded GI educational benefits bill, known as the "Forever GI Bill" to President Donald Trump's desk to sign.

    The Forever GI Bill, which passed the U.S. Senate unanimously, is estimated to cost more than $3 billion over 10 years.

    "It restores benefits to Veterans who were impacted by school closures since 2015 and has special benefits for our reservists, surviving dependents and Purple Heart recipients," said Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin in a statement.

    The new law will also eliminate the 15-year limit on educational benefits for new enlistees. As the bill's nickname implies, Veterans will no longer have a time limit for completing their education.

    Since the GI Bill's creation in 1944 during World War II, it has been updated several times to help Veterans pay for college and training. The last expansion, the post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, often called the post-9/11 GI Bill, was eight years ago.

    The 2009 expansion increased Veteran student enrollment at colleges, says Liang Zhang, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, who studies higher education policies. Zhang found in his recent study that the last expansion increased enrollment rates by 3 percentage points from comparing the 2005-2008 period with 2010-2015.

    According to the 2017 annual report by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 79 percent of Veterans who enrolled in a higher education program in 2016 were beneficiaries from the post-9/11 program.

    "If the last GI Bill had a significant enrollment, then we could probably expect an increase in general enrollment by the current expansions," Zhang says.

    [Explore ways community colleges serve Veterans.]

    Veteran advocacy groups say Trump is expected to sign the Forever GI Bill. Here are five big changes once the bill becomes law.

    1. Veterans whose colleges shut down in the middle of the semester will have their benefits restored. The closure of several colleges and universities in 2015 and 2016, many of which were for-profit, adversely affected many student Veterans, experts say.

    "So those who were attending ITT when it closed will have a full restoration of the benefits and be able to use the benefit at a different school," says James Schmeling, executive vice president of District of Columbia-based Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group.

    But this benefit is not just for those who attended ITT Technical Institute, it also applies to service members who attended a postsecondary institution that closed after January 2015. According to the Congressional Budget Office, $50 million will go toward restoring benefits to thousands of Veterans next year.

    2. New service members can use the benefit throughout their lifetimes. The caveat is it's only for those who were discharged on or after Jan. 1, 2013.

    For those who meet this cutoff, the expansion will eliminate the 15-year time limit to use these benefits.

    Experts say this will enable more Veterans to complete college or higher education courses for a career, which are necessary for wage gains.

    3. The expanded benefits emphasizeSTEM programs. The expansion encourages Veterans to enroll in science, technology, engineering or math degrees through financial incentives.

    [Discover how Veterans can afford pricey private university tuition.]

    Schmeling says student Veterans often voice that they had to choose other fields since some STEM bachelor's degrees can take up to five years to complete.

    "They were choosing other degrees that they could complete during the availability of their GI benefit. So extending them allows them to take STEM more seriously than they might have before," he says.

    Veterans interested in these fields will be eligible to receive either nine months more of educational benefits or up to $30,000 in a lump sum, the maximum amount.

    While many of the bill's provisions go into effect next year, this provision won't be available until August 2019.

    4. All Purple Heart recipients sinceSept. 11, 2001 are now eligible for educational benefits. Previously, many reservists who were injured during active service didn’t meet the full requirements for the GI Bill.

    With this expansion, 1,500 Purple Heart recipients will become eligible for GI benefits, Veteran advocates say.

    5. GI Bill entitlements can be transferred to another dependent or spouse. Veterans will be able to transfer the remainder of their entitlement to another dependent in cases where the dependent who initially received the transferred benefits dies.

    A dependent will also be able to transfer the remaining benefits to another dependent after the death of the Veteran, too.

    "It's not really a large expansion, but it's a humanitarian need for those who need to transfer," Schmeling says.


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  • VA Rating Reduced


    You open the big white envelope you just received from the Department of Veterans Affairs, nervously anticipating what actions the VA has so wisely decided to take concerning your VA service-connected disability benefits.  “They are reducing me!” you shout.  “But my condition has become worse, not better!” Your frustration with the bureaucratic monster sets in, followed by a wave of fear and worry.  Your monthly income is going to be cut in half.  You think to yourself, “How can the VA do this!?!  How am I going to pay my bills and support my family?”  

    You are not alone in your frustration.  The VA can and does frequently take action to reduce a rating.  However, many times a rating is reduced without proper due process or observation of law.  Compounding the problem are VA examiner performing inadequate exams and under trained VA adjudicators.  I am going to give you seven actions you can take to if the VA proposes to reduce your rating.

    1. 1.Attend your re-examination!

    The VA may require a Veteran who receives service-disabled compensation benefits to be reexamined by a VA physician to verify the current severity of your disability.  Generally, reexaminations are ordered if evidence indicates a change in the disability or the VA thinks the disability is likely to improve. The examination will generally be scheduled five years from the date of the rating decision. There are five situations in which no reexamination should be scheduled:

    • The disability is unchanging;
    • Symptoms have persisted without “material improvement” for five or more years;
    • You are over 55 years old;
    • Your rating is  the minimum rating; or
    • Your combined rating will not be affected

    *TIP* If the VA schedules a Veteran for an examination and the disability falls within one of the categories listed above, the Veteran may wish to contact the VA and request that it reconsider its decision to schedule the exam.

    A Veteran who fails to report for a reexamination without good cause or without attempting to reschedule the examination may have his disability payments reduced or discontinued.  Good cause includes the VA sending notification of the reexamination to the wrong address; illness or hospitalization of the Veteran; or death of an immediate family member.  If you have a reasonable excuse for failure to report for a scheduled reexamination, the Veteran should notify the VA of this fact as soon as possible.

    At the exam, it is important that you make the examiner aware of all the symptoms of the service-connected disability that is being reevaluated.  Do not downplay or minimize your symptoms.  It is also important to fully describe to the examiner the effects of your disability upon your ordinary activity.  For example, say the Veteran’s back condition is being reexamined.  The Veteran’s back may not be painful at the moment the exam is being conducted, but he experiences painful motion and flare-ups in his back while at work.  It is important to make this information known to the examiner.

    Shy Veterans or those who minimize their symptoms may wish to bring a spouse or another loved one into the exam so that they can provide additional details on the Veteran’s observable symptoms to the examiner.

    1. 2.Request a hearing.

    An important protection in cases where the VA proposes a reduction of service-connected disability benefits is the Veteran’s right to a predetermination hearing.  The hearing must be requested within 30 days from the date of the notice of the proposed reduction.  If the Veteran requests a hearing within 30 days, the proposed reduction will not be implemented, if at all, until the hearing takes place.

    A benefit of asking for a hearing within the 30 day period is that the reduction of benefits is delayed.  The reduction will not be implemented until at least 60 days after the final decision to reduce is sent to the Veteran.  This buys the Veteran at least two months of benefits at the current percentage and gives additional time to gather evidence.  Further, the hearing provides another opportunity for the Veteran to describe his condition and symptoms to the VA adjudicator.

    1. 3.Obtain a copy of your reexamination report.

    You can’t contest a proposed reduction if you don’t know the content of the medical opinion upon which the reduction is based.  It is easy to obtain a copy of the report so that you can verify the physician accurately recorded the symptoms of your service-connected condition. Complete thisform:  and send or bring it to the VA medical facility which performed your reexamination.

    Once you receive the examination, review it and search for any inaccuracies reported by the examiner.  For example, perhaps the VA examiner reports that you have panic attacks only once a week, but you told the examiner you experience panic attacks at least three times a week.  You can report this discrepancy to the VA using VA Form 21-4138 or mention it to the VA adjudicator at your scheduled hearing.  An exam based on inaccurate facts should be considered of little value and the Veteran should request a new exam is given.

    1. 4.Acquire your treatment records.

    The VA must base any proposed reduction upon a review of the entire history of the Veteran’s disability and not on the single reexamination.  If you receive treatment for the service connected condition that the VA is proposing to reduce, it is important that the VA has copies of these records. Treatment records are important so the VA has an accurate picture of the disability.  If you receive treatment from a VA facility, you can obtain a copy of your treatment records using the form mentioned in point “3” above.  If you are privately treated, ask your private physician how you can obtain a copy of your treatment records and progress notes.  It is recommended that you request the last two years of records.

    *TIP* You should only submit treatment records that are relevant to the service connected condition that the VA is proposing to reduce.  If you overwhelm the VA with hundreds of pages of records, there is a good chance they will be overlooked or not thoroughly reviewed by the VA.

    1. 5.Ask for Buddy statements.

    Ask your friends, family, and co-workers to write letters on your behalf about symptoms they can observe of the service connected disability.  Laypersons cannot diagnose conditions, but they are able to testify as to the symptoms readily observable.  For example, a friend can write that a Veteran with PTSD once socialized on a regular basis, but that he rarely sees him now because he won’t leave the house.  Another example is a spouse writing on behalf of a Veteran with service connected knee injury who can only walk a few blocks before he has to stop due to pain.

    1. 6.Know the legal standards.

    Many VA adjudicators are overworked, under trained, and don’t  understand the nuances of VA law.  One of the most powerful things you can do for yourself, is educate yourself on the requirements the VA must meet before it may lawfully reduce a disability rating level.  If the requirements are not met, the improperly reduced benefits must be reinstated.  The rules that protect Veterans against reductions in ratings vary depending on how long the rating level has been in effect.

    Five years or more.  Any rating evaluation that has been continued at the same level for five years or more, may not be reduced unless all the evidence of record shows “sustained improvement” in the disability.  Sustained improvement means the disability has not temporarily improved and the improvement will be maintained under the ordinary conditions of life, such as at work.

    Less than five years.  The VA must determine if there has been an actual change in the disability.  Further, any improvement must reflect an improvement in the Veteran’s ability to function under the ordinary conditions of life and work.  Lastly, the examination reports reflecting any change must be based on thorough examinations.  For example, an exam is not thorough if it does not discuss the symptoms found in the treatment records.

    Twenty years.  If a disability has been continuously rated at a particular rating level for twenty years or more, the VA cannot reduce the rating below that level unless it discovers that the rating was based on fraud.  For example, if a Veteran is granted 30 percent for PTSD and for the next twenty years the rating varies between 30 percent and 100 percent, the rating cannot be reduced below 30 percent in the absence of fraud. The twenty year protection rule applies even to rating levels that are assigned retroactively because a previous final decision is revised based on a finding of clear and unmistakable error.

    1. 7.Appeal if necessary.

    If you do steps 1-6, but the VA still reduces your service connected disability rating, don’t fret!  Even if the VA reduces your rating, you can still appeal that decision.   If you want to contest the reduction, you have one year from the date of the final determination to file VA Form 21-0958, Notice of Disagreement.  It is advisable to speak with a VA accredited attorney or representative before submitting your appeal.  If it is found that the ratings were made without observance of law, the rating will be reinstated and the Veteran will be back paid to the date of the erroneous reduction.

    Edward M. Farmer is aU.S. Army Veteran and attorney. A majority of his career has been dedicated to assisting Veterans.  More information regarding Edward and his law firm can be found at

    The material and information contained on these pages and on any pages linked from these pages are intended to provide general information only and not legal advice. You should consult with an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction before relying upon any of the information presented here.


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  • Vets Colleges


    Best for Vets: Colleges 2019 rankings

    • 4-year schools
    • 2-year schools
    • Online and nontraditional schools
    • Career and technical colleges

    Methodology: How we did it

    In the market for a good school where you can use your education benefits?

    We surveyed hundreds of colleges across the country and used their answers, combined with federal data, to rank them in the areas of university culture, academic quality and outcomes, policies, student support and costs and financial aid.

    Read about our top finishers below and check out the full list of schools in the charts to help inform your decision.

    4-Year Schools

    1.Georgia Southern University

    Veterans and service members make up about 8 percent of the student body at Georgia Southern University, the largest proportion of any top 10 school in the four-year category. The school recently consolidated with Armstrong State University, which has for years been a top finisher in our Best for Vets rankings.

    “We are extremely proud of the programs, services and campus culture we have developed that provide service members, Veterans and their families the opportunity to achieve their academic and professional goals,” said Phil Gore, Georgia Southern University’s director of Military and Veterans Affairs. “Being recognized by Military Times as one of the best institutions for military-affiliated students demonstrates the level of commitment we have to providing our military population an optimal educational experience to ensure they complete a postsecondary degree.”

    2.University of South Florida

    At the University of South Florida, military-connected students are retained, complete courses and graduate at higher rates, on average, than their peers at other schools that provided this information on the survey. They also have a slightly higher GPA than non-military students at the school – 3.21, compared to 3.17.

    “The university has made it a point, no matter the issue, to work with Veterans from the moment they show interest in the school, through their matriculation and even beyond graduation into their future career,” said Air Force Veteran and University of South Florida graduate Aimee Carpenter, now an admission and benefits coordinator at the school. “At any point throughout their journey, the Office of Veteran Success is there to help our student Veterans and their families in any way they can.”

    3.Rutgers, TheState University ofNew Jersey

    At Rutgers, the largest school in the top 10 with more than 69,000 students, the student Veteran population has tripled in the last decade, said Ann Treadway, director of the Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services. The school has both a Veterans center for socializing and an office for processing military education benefits on campus, as well as a virtual Veterans center to replicate these services for online students.

    2-Year Schools

    1. Central Community College-Nebraska

    This multi-campus community college serving a 25-county area in Nebraska topped our list of 2-year schools for the sixth year in a row.

    “Student Veterans face unique challenges as they readjust to civilian life, and we are dedicated and proud to have multiple centers and services available to empower them through the transition,” said Travis Karr, director of Veteran and military services.

    Central recently opened its fourth Veteran and Military Resource Center at its Kearney Learning Center satellite campus, providing comprehensive resources and services for students and embodying “Central Community College’s mission to maximize student and community success,” Karr said.

    2. NorthwesternMichigan College

    At Northwestern Michigan College, the Office of Military and Veteran Services tries to serve as the “new team” for students who recently separated from the military. It’s no wonder, then, that of the five areas we consider for the Best for Vets: Colleges list — culture, student support, cost and financial aid, policies and academic quality — culture was the school’s strongest category.

    “The men and women who have chosen to serve our country deserve our respect, our gratitude and our support,” said Scott Herzberg, advisor for military and Veteran services at Northwestern Michigan College. “They have invested time, energy, and passion with their whole being to do a job few in our nation now do. It’s our turn to serve them, just as they have served us.”

    3.Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus

    At the Trinity River Campus of Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas, the 1997 book “Inside the Magic Kingdom” is required reading for all news hires, school officials told Military Times. That translates to “aggressively” friendly customer service for students, and the Disney-like atmosphere could be one reason the school earned high marks on our rankings.

    Like most other schools on the list, Tarrant County College is a signatory of the Veterans Affairs Department’s Principles of Excellence and Eight Keys to Veterans’ Success and has both a Veterans center and a Veterans office on campus.

    Online and Nontraditional Schools

    1.Liberty University

    Liberty University is the largest school in our online and nontraditional rankings list with nearly 103,000 students. And while Liberty has a physical campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, the overwhelming majority of its 30,000 Veteran, service-member and military-dependent students have opted to attend online, according to enrollment figures provided by the school.

    The university did a better job of retaining both its military and non-military students between 2016 and 2017 than most other online and nontraditional schools that participated in the survey.

    “In 2017, we were designated as a Purple Heart University — the first one in Virginia — in recognition of our support of military members, including Veterans and their families,” said President Jerry Falwell Jr. “We consider it a great honor to serve these men and women who have made sacrifices for our country.”

    2. University ofMaryland University College

    "At UMUC, we know what it means to serve the educational needs of Veterans, as well as service members transitioning out of the military, because we have been doing it for more than 70 years,” said retired Army Col. Keith Hauk, associate vice president for Veterans initiatives and military operations support at the university.

    Military students make up more than 45 percent of the student population at the school, which offers classes primarily online, but also in person, including on many military installations in the U.S. and overseas. Aside from being a top-ranked school, UMUC is also the second most popular destination for service members using TA benefits and is among the top 10 most common colleges chosen by GI Bill users, according to federal data.

    3.Excelsior College

    Excelsior College, headquartered in Albany, New York, had the highest military-student graduation rate of any online and nontraditional school that provided this information in the survey. It also tied for the lowest student loan default rate among schools ranked in this list.

    “Through flexible, affordable, and career-oriented academic programs and wide-ranging student-centric services and resources offered by our Center for Military and Veteran Education, we are well positioned to assist former service members achieve their educational and career goals,” said Excelsior President James Baldwin. “Their success remains the most significant measure of our success as an institution.”

    Career and Technical Colleges

    1.ECPI University

    ECPI University runs on a year-round schedule, offering five-week terms with both in-classroom, online and hybrid options that offer military and Veteran students flexibility and speed in their education, said Bill Brown, executive director of military education at the for-profit school. And in many cases, classes replicate the training programs students went through during their active-duty service.

    "At ECPI University, we value and honor military experience,” Brown said. “Our academic team works diligently to ensure that all relevant military education and training is translated into academic credit. That military experience carries over not just in credit, but also value to the entire student body.”

    2.Savannah Technical College

    At Savannah Technical College, one in four students is a Veteran, service member or a military dependent, said Jim Krupp, the school’s military outreach coordinator.

    “We are proud to serve military-affiliated students and continue to look for ways to support them, including unique training programs, scholarships and support services,” he said. “Our graduates have a 93.1 percent placement rate in their field of study, which shows that employers hire our graduates for their trained workforce.”

    Though the school’s most recent graduation rate for all students was a mere 25 percent, according to Education Department data, its military students graduated at a much higher rate of 73 percent.

    3.Gwinnett Technical College

    Gwinnett Technical College, which has about 8,000 students, recently opened a new 25-acre campus in Alpharetta, Georgia, in addition to its main campus in Lawrenceville. The school offers more than 140 associate degree, diploma and certificate programs, as well as hundreds of seminars, workshops and courses that provide specialized training, according to information provided by the school.

    Student support was the school’s highest-ranked category, followed by cost and financial aid. Tuition costs at Gwinnett are covered by both the military’s tuition assistance benefit and the GI Bill.


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  • Big Change Benefits


    Improved Pension with Aid and Attendance

    First, John explains the VA’s Aid and Attendance benefit. If a Veteran served at least 90 days of active duty, with one of those days being during a period of war, that person is a “wartime Veteran.” If that wartime Veteran needs help with their activities of daily living, and the costs associated with that care outweigh the Veteran’s ability to pay for it, then the VA will potentially kick in some extra money.

    Technically, this benefit is called the improved pension with aid and attendance, but most people just call it aid and attendance.

    It’s not only available to the Veteran, but it is also available to the surviving spouse of the Veteran, if they were married at least one year, married to the Veteran at the time of the Veteran’s death, and not remarried.

    This income can be a life-saver, especially if it makes it possible for the Veteran or survivor to live in a facility that can care for their needs.

    The Changes

    A few of the rules about eligibility for the Aid and Attendance benefit have changed. This includes clarification of the assets test, and a look-back period for any transfer of assets.

    Clearly Defined Assets Test

    This is a need-based benefit. In the past, the assets test for this benefit was very vague. One of the new rules is that there is bright line rule for net worth. There is now a clearly defined $123,600 limit on countable assets in order to qualify for this benefit.

    John is concerned about how some of the changes are written. For example, a home is not a countable asset, but it is the home plus two acres. This means that folks who live on larger lots, or own extra land, will have a more complicated situation.

    There is also a strange way that the VA is now calculating income as part of that net worth. In determining your assets, the VA will now look at something called your “income for VA purposes.” This takes your annual income, minus your unreimbursed medical expenses, and adds that to your net worth. This does not make any sense – there is no other context in which you included someone’s income in their net worth.

    Adding A Look-back Period

    The biggest change is that historically, the VA did not have a penalty for transferring assets. They now have a 3 year look-back period, similar to Medicaid. Any transferred that occurred in the 3 years prior to your application , any gift that happened during those 3 years, they can penalize you up to 60 months in the future.

    The penalty period is calculated by taking the amount of the gift, and divide that by the maximum aid and attendance benefit for a single person with one dependent, which is about $2,170 per month. The VA won’t provide benefits for the number of months you’ve been penalized.

    This only applies to gifts that are over the asset limit.

    The maximum penalty can be no longer than five years.

    This creates a tricky situation where you have to be sure that you wait at least the three years after transferring any assets or else you may find yourself penalized for longer than the look-back period.

    What This Means For You

    The big takeaway from these changes is that if you may be eligible for this benefit, you might need to do some advance planning. In the past, there was no reason to plan until you were going to apply for the benefit. Because of these changes, you might want to take some actions in advance to ensure you are eligibility for this benefit when the time comes.


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    CalVet is in the process of updating the rules for admission eligibility at our eight California Veterans Homes.

  • Tricare Fees


    With the federal deficit expected to top $1 trillion this year, the Congressional Budget Office in December published a list of options for reducing the imbalance over the next 10 years, including three suggestions on Tricare and six that address Veterans benefits.

    In its Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2019 to 2028, the CBO laid out 121 opportunities for curtailing spending and raising revenue. These include raising Tricare enrollment fees for military retirees, instituting enrollment fees for Tricare for Life and reducing Veterans benefits.

    The publication marks the fourth time in five years that the CBO has suggested raising Tricare enrollment fees for working-age retirees and introducing minimum out-of-pocket expenses for those using Tricare for Life.

    The CBO suggested that increasing Tricare enrollment fees for working-age retirees -- those under age 65 -- could help slash the deficit by $12.6 billion. To obtain this, it said, the Defense Department should more than double annual enrollment fees for individuals and families enrolled in Tricare Prime and institute annual fees of $485 for an individual and $970 for a family for Tricare Select. Most working-age retirees currently pay no enrollment fees for Tricare Select.

    The CBO also suggested instituting enrollment fees for Tricare for Life, the program that serves as supplemental coverage for military retirees on Medicare. Analysts estimated that the Defense Department could save $12 billion between 2021 and 2028 if it adopted annual enrollment fees of $485 for an individual or $970 for a family for Tricare for Life, in addition to the Medicare premiums most military retirees 65 and older pay.

    According to CBO analysts, these options would reduce the financial burden of Tricare for Life to the DoD in two ways: It would cut the government's share by the amount of fees collected and indirectly would save money by causing some patients to forgo Tricare for Life altogether, either by buying a private Medicare supplement or simply going without one.

    Another option would be to introduce minimum out-of-pocket requirements for those using Tricare for Life. In this proposal, TFL would not cover any of the $750 of cost-sharing payments under Medicare and would cover just 50 percent of the next nearly $7,000.

    Retired Navy Capt. Kathryn Beasley, director of government relations for health issues at the Military Officers Association of America, said her organization is concerned that the CBO continues to include health care rate hikes for military retirees in its list of options, which it publishes every few years or so. The CBO also ignored the fact that rate increases went into effect last year, she added.

    "CBO does this every year. Our biggest concern is that some of these options would make their way into the president's budget," Beasley said. "With all the changes to the military health care system in the past year, we think we simply need to stabilize Tricare. It's been a lot to absorb."

    According to the CBO, the Department of Veterans Affairs also presents several opportunities for cost-savings measures. Some suggestions in the CBO assessment include:

    • Narrowing eligibility for disability compensation for seven diseases the Government Accountability Office has said are not caused or aggravated by military service, including arteriosclerotic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Crohn's disease, hemorrhoids, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, and uterine fibroids. This option would save $33 billion over 10 years.
    • Ending the VA's individual unemployability payments to disabled Veterans when they turn 67, the retirement age for receiving full Social Security benefits, which would save an estimated $48 billion.
    • Reducing disability benefits to Veterans older than 67 who are receiving Social Security payments. This could save the government $11 billion.
    • Eliminating disability compensation for 1.3 million Veterans with disability rates below 30 percent, saving $38 billion over an eight-year period.

    The VA option with some of the largest savings potential, according to CBO, would be to end enrollment for the two million Veterans in Priority Groups 7 and 8 -- those who do not have service-connected disabilities and have income above the VA national threshold and below a geographically adjusted threshold (Group 7) or above both thresholds (Group 8). This could save the government up to $57 billion, CBO analysts said.

    Finally, the CBO said the federal government could raise revenue by including VA disability payments as taxable income. According to the CBO, if all disability payments were to be taxed, federal revenues during the time frame would increase by $93 billion.

    If just Veterans rated 20 percent or less paid taxes on their disability compensation, federal revenues would increase by $4 billion, it said.

    CBO analysts say their options only "reflect a range of possibilities" and are not recommendations or a ranking of priorities. "The inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply that CBO endorses it or opposes it," they wrote.


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  • Disabled Vets


    What's Not Talked About?

    Throughout the history of warfare, service members have been placed in unimaginable situations, often situations in which they have to make difficult decisions. Frequently, decisions made during deployment have lifelong consequences. Many Veterans have expressed a desire to be the person they were before they experienced trauma, and they often try to suppress or avoid memories of the trauma they have lived through. However, the use of avoidant coping strategies has been found to be counterproductive in the long run. By attempting to avoid the traumatic events service members have experienced, they end up exacerbating the intensity and frequency of their trauma memories and the sequelae and symptoms of those memories over time.

    Some Veterans are able to move past trauma with minimal dysfunction in their lives; however, for others, the traumatic event creates havoc and chaos. Trauma symptoms can become so problematic that they result in family discord, divorce, social dysfunction, significant substance use, employment difficulty, physical health difficulties, legal problems, and more. And the disruption of service members’ lives as a result of trauma symptoms is hardly uncommon. Due to the dysfunction and negative impact of trauma and its symptoms in the lives of service members, the VA has recognized and developed the VA disability rating system. The disability rating system considers both physical and mental health-related conditions. The more areas of a Veteran’s life that are impacted (i.e. social and occupational difficulty or physical limitation and/or pain), the more financial compensation that Veteran potentially could be warranted. I am a firm believer that Veterans are entitled to every dollar that they are afforded and then some...Many can argue that the lifelong implications and symptoms that Veterans have to endure cannot be quantified or compensated with a dollar amount. The VA does its best to equitably compensate Veterans based on their level of dysfunction. However, if the Veteran could eliminate the disabling experience that initiated their impairing symptoms, it is possible that they could exceed the amount of their VA compensation by functioning optimally in the civilian sector. Essentially, they would be able to have a greater positive economic impact and earn a higher living wage if they did not experience disabling symptoms. Given the high level of training military members receive, the values, discipline, and structure instilled by military training and service often lead most Veterans to make dependable, hard-working, and effective employees.

    Disability Rating System

    According to the VA Disability Rating System, in the year 2000, the average compensation provided to Veterans through the disability rating system was about $20 billion for 2.3 million Veterans. In 2013, that number rose to 3.5 million Veterans receiving $54 billion in compensation. This number has continued to rise over the last several years and will hopefully continue to do so, enabling Veterans to receive the compensation they deserve. A major reason for the spike in Veterans receiving compensation is the continued 14-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When service members are sent to war and later return home, there are often significant consequences to service—economics being one of them. Unfortunately, many Veterans who are still in need of services and compensation for VA benefits have not taken advantage of the services offered. Many factors impact Veterans’ decisions not to seek care— a main one being stigma. Two examples of stigma are: one, a Veterans’ hesitation to seek mental health services due to being perceived as “weak” or “vulnerable;” and, two, the possibility of having negative career or job implications as the result of potentially impairing symptoms. As I have said in a previous blog, it takes a nation to build a military and go to war. And, it takes a nation to welcome them home. Compensating our Veterans for their service is the first of many steps that should be afforded to Veterans for their sacrifice. If we send people to war, it is a fundamental imperative that we take care of them when they come home. The tide is changing, and the VA has gone to great lengths to decrease wait times for compensation and pension evaluations so that Veterans are streamlined through the process. There is no perfect system, and the pendulum has and is continuing to shift in the right direction so that our brothers and sisters in arms are taken care of.

    To specify the rating system with an example, if a Veteran diagnosed with PTSD has a 50 percent service-connected disability rating and they have a spouse and one child, they would receive $978.64 each month. Yearly, that is roughly $11,745. The pay for a Veteran that is 100 percent serviced-connected increases significantly. They would approximately $3200 monthly. Although this money is not taxed, many Veterans still struggle to make ends meet. Anecdotally, there is a misconception that if a Veteran receives a 100 percent service connection, they will be able to live a “lavish” lifestyle. That is simply not true. This money can definitely help decrease financial distress, however, many Veterans still struggle to pay for things they and their families need.

    Once a Veteran receives a disability rating and compensation is provided, there can be fear that the disability rating might be decreased or taken away if the VA finds evidence the Veteran’s symptoms have improved to a more manageable level. Once Veterans receive a service-connected percentage of disability, it is not a fixed rate for life—although it could be. The VA has the right to decrease the compensation rate if the Veteran shows material improvement in their ability to function in daily life whether that be in relation to a physical or mental health-related condition. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Service Connected Disability website (2017), if a Veteran has less than a 100 percent disability rating, has been receiving compensation for less than five years, and has shown medical and social improvement, the VA can reduce the percentage of disability and compensation based on the evidence found. However, if a Veteran has been receiving benefits for longer than 20 years, it is considered a continuous rating and the VA cannot lawfully reduce the rating. At 10 years, a Veteran’s rating cannot be terminated, but it can be reduced. If a Veteran’s disability rating is reduced, a Veteran has the option of requesting a reexamination, and they should contact a Veterans’ Service Organization representative to advocate on their behalf.

    The VA provides great and well-needed services, and they save lives every day. Unfortunately, some Veterans walk away from the VA dissatisfied and displeased. There is no perfect mental health and medical system, and the disability rating scale is not perfect either. There is no one program that provides a “fix all” solution. What it will take is public and private partnerships moving forward in order to maximize reach and expand access, frequency, and quality of care.

    Many Veterans who receive benefits fear their benefits may be taken away at any point in time. Unfortunately, this fear of disability ratings potentially being lowered if there is substantial evidence that the Veteran has made improvement deters people from seeking and fully engaging in well-needed treatment. For instance, if a service-connected Veteran engages in an evidenced-based trauma-focused treatment for PTSD that has been shown to reduce symptoms upon full completion, and as a result of that treatment their overall dysfunction decreases, that Veteran could be at risk of decreased disability ratings if that improvement is documented and gathered during a medical evaluation. Veterans who know the disability rating system may be deterred from seeking care at the VA because of that potential. The more dysfunction one has, the more money they receive; so increased symptomology is incentivized and reinforced. If Veterans struggle with employment and optimal functioning, it makes sense that those Veterans may not want to show improvement. This is one lens to look through.

    Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution to this problem. However, there has been plenty of debate about possible solutions. One solution discussed would be to extend the time period between the rating system from the initial evaluation and reevaluation. This solution could assist with decreasing stigma and reducing the fear of losing a percentage rating with the potential benefit of encouraging people to fully engage in well-needed treatment. This would allow Veterans to seek a high standard of care, receive benefits, and practice their skill-sets learned with a longer time to adjust for life stressors that may continue to exacerbate symptoms. If there is no reoccurrence of symptoms, then one may experience a reduction in compensation. If there continues to be notable impairment, then the percentage of disability rating could stay the same or increase. Another potential solution is to continue the private-public partnership so that Veterans can receive care outside of the VA. If Veterans fear that making progress would jeopardize their disability rating when seeking care at the VA, those concerns are potentially lessened with treatment in the private sector. These issues about disability ratings and improvement in functioning are only a few of the many issues debated in the current Veterans’ issues climate. Although they are hotly debated, the pendulum is moving in the right direction by placing our Veterans first.


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  • Congress


    After years of false hopes and disappointments from Congress, military personnel with at least 20 years of service who did not spend more than 179 consecutive days on federal active duty received an early Christmas present from both Congress and the president.

    President Barack Obama signed into law on Dec. 16 legislation known as the Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016 that grants Veteran status for National Guard soldiers and airmen and reservists from all branches of service.

    Earlier this month, the 114th Congress approved legislation to expand the legal definition of a Veteran for guardsmen and reservists who honorably serve or had served in the military for 20 years but were never called up for federal active duty for an extended period of time.


    “I still think it falls somewhat short, but it is a step in the right direction. A person in the guard or reserves who spends 20 years of good service at a minimum would get around 1,260 days on duty or about 3.5 years of honorable service.” Brig. Gen. Bill Burks, the adjutant general forNevada.

    "This legislation is a victory for Veterans. While we still have work to do, I am proud of how we have moved the ball forward in a bipartisan way," said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a retired National Guard sergeant major.

    Since first coming to Congress, Walz — along with members of the Nevada delegation to include Sen. Dean Heller, outgoing senator and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Congressmen Mark Amodei and Joe Heck, both Army Veterans — has fought tfor this legislation to honor guardsmen and reservists.

    In Nevada for example, the state recognizes guardsmen and reservists as Veterans without the requirement of 179 days of federal active duty. No one, though, welcomed the news more than Brig. Gen. Bill Burks, the adjutant general for Nevada.

    "I still think it falls somewhat short, but it is a step in the right direction," he said in an email to the Lahontan Valley News. "A person in the guard or reserves who spends 20 years of good service at a minimum would get around 1,260 days on duty (63 days times 20 years) or about 3.5 years of honorable service.

    "I know all enlistments are now for eight years (active, guard and reserve), but if you can manage that as a period of two to three years active duty enlistment and spend the remainder in the IRR (Individual Readiness Reserve), you are considered a Veteran even if you never leave the United States. So you can see the disparity in the systems.

    "Lastly, I don't know of any guard member that only does the one weekend a month and two weeks a year anymore. I think the average nationwide is well over a 100 days for the average guard member."

    Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veteran Services, said the legislation provides for no additional benefits other than permitting those who are entitled to retired pay for nonregular service to be referred to as Veterans.

    "Nevada is ahead of the federal government in acknowledging members of the Guard and Reserve as Veterans," she said. "In fact in 2013 Gov. (Brian) Sandoval signed Assembly Bill 266, which established that in Nevada members of the National Guard and Reserve forces are defined as "Veterans" if they have been assigned to duty for a minimum of six continuous years, even if they are not military retirees."

    Sen. Dean Heller said the passage of the bill and the president's signature "have been a long time coming." He said guardsmen and reservists take the same educational courses and perform the same type of training.

    "I am very grateful to honor those who honor their country," Heller said in a phone interview with the LVN. "This will serve them well. These men and women work hard and serve hard. They did what they had to."

    Likewise, Amodei said Walz's legislation bill is common sense legislation and lawmakers persevered to pass this law.

    "It's the right thing to do," said Amodei, who represents Congressional District 2 in Northern Nevada. "The folks in the Guard and Reserve will now be acknowledged."

    Both Reid and Heck did not comment on the bill's passage.


    The National Guard Association of the United States has been a big proponent of attaining Veterans status for guardsmen and reservists.

    "The current definition has long been out of date," said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, NGAUS president. "It fails to recognize the deterrence value of training and readiness to our national security. Many of those affected underwent arduous, even dangerous, training. They helped win the Cold War. Others worked in direct support of those who did deploy. Yet our nation tells them that they aren't Veterans."

    NGAUS vigorously pushed for the change for six years. It easily passed in the House in every session only to be halted in the Senate by fears that an expansion of the definition would raise the cost of Veteran entitlement programs.

    The House and Senate actually approved the change last year, but the language was not identical. This forced the two chambers to come up with a compromise provision, which they did last week.

    John Goheen, director of Communications for NGAUS, served on active duty and has worked alongside guardsmen and reservists.

    "All of us should be called Veterans. We all served," he said, adding many guardsmen and reservists served with distinction.

    Because of the provision of the law, Goheen said the newly minted Veterans will not be eligible for additional benefits, a point echoed by Miller.

    "However, neither the Federal nor the state legislation affects eligibility at our cemeteries or at the Nevada State Nursing home," Miller pointed out. "Our cemeteries and nursing home must follow federal eligibility guidelines in order to receive federal reimbursement. This legislation did not change current Federal law which only permits National Guard and Reserve members to be buried at the cemeteries if they have served two continuous years on active duty, died while in the line of duty, or if they were officially retired from the guard of reserve."

    Miller also said a Veteran must have had 90 days of active duty military service to receive care at a state Veterans home,


    Retired Nevada Army Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Wayne Willson said the bill will affect millions of guardsmen and reservists across the United States, and thousands of military personnel in Nevada who never worked in an AGR (Active Guard Reserve) full-time federal status or deployed for more than 179 days. Willson said not too many Guardsmen deployed to Vietnam although the Nevada Air Guard received orders to activate airmen when the North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo in 1968. Fewer than 51,000 Guardsmen received a call up to Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-1991. The massive deployments, though, began in 2002 and 2003 when the military deployed both active duty and reservists to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Retired Nevada Army Guard Maj. James M. Ludlow of Fallon spent 22 years in the National Guard but never deployed more than 179 days. During his career, he commanded several Carson City units and traveled overseas numerous times for training including to the Republic of Korea and Panama.

    "It bothered me a little bit," Ludlow said about the federal government's lack of recognition for Guardsmen and Reservists. "People served only two years in active duty were called Veterans," said Ludlow, an engineering officer who has the equivalent of more than six years of military service. "When I served in the Guard, we were eligible for federal call-up."

    Ludlow said he was glad when he heard Congress passed the legislation and the president signed it.

    Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joe Dolan of Carson City spent 41 years in the Nevada Army Guard, most of that time as a state technician. Although technicians wear the uniform and must take the same courses as their active-duty counterparts, they are considered as civilian state — not federal — employees. Most technicians worked in Carson City, Reno and Las Vegas.

    "This is certainly good news," said Dolan, who served as both an administrative and safety officer.

    Overall, Miller said the legislation is important for recognition.

    "I personally would like to see the federal government expand eligibility for burial and nursing home benefits to all those who serve in the Guard and Reserve … not just our retirees," she said. "These patriotic men and women volunteered to serve our nation and our state in times of both restless peace and war; the fact that they were not called up to do so in no way detracts from their willingness to serve."


    In addition to the provision for federal status, the bill also included the following provisions:

    HR 2691 – Authorizes the VA to provide burial and funeral benefits to Veterans if there is sufficient evidence to establish that they deserve the benefit, even if the Veteran had not filed paperwork with the VA previously.

    Sections of HR 1338 – Requires VA to report to Congress on the interment of unclaimed remains of deceased Veterans to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect.

    HR 2531 – Fixes a component of the Fry Scholarship (for surviving spouses of post-9/11 Service Members who die in the line of duty) so that recipients from 2001-2005 can receive the full benefit they are entitled to.

    According to the congressman's office, the bill also had about 60 other provisions improving VA-provided services to homeless Veterans, VA construction management, the Vocation Rehabilitation and Employment program, and access to care in the Veterans Health Administration.


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  • VA got it wrong


    TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) - A federal court ruled the Department of Veterans Affairs got it wrong when it deprived tens of thousands of Vietnam Veterans the benefits they deserve.

    In an 8-3 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals decided Navy Veterans of the Vietnam War are absolutely entitled to Agent Orange related medical and disability benefits.

    Alfred Procopio, a Veteran who served on the U.S.S. Intrepid off the coast the Vietnam, suffers from diabetes and prostate cancer, two diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure.

    The VA denied his claim, pointing out that Procopio never stepped foot in Vietnam.

    The Court of Appeals pointed out in its decision that Congress was specific when it passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, to include "active military, naval, or air service... in the Republic of Vietnam."  

    The court decided Procopio served in Vietnam's territorial waters which are part of the "Republic of Vietnam."

    The ruling affects between 50,000 to 90,000 Navy Veterans the VA excluded from benefits.

    For nearly 20 years, the VA presumed that members of the military who served on the ground during the Vietnam War were exposed to the toxic herbicide.

    Agent Orange killed and made ill thousands of service members.

    The VA provided medical care and disability benefits to those who developed diseases linked to the toxic weed killer.

    However, it excluded Navy Veterans like Mike Kvintus of New Port Richey, who served along the coast of Vietnam.

    Kvintus' ship also anchored in Vietnam harbors.

    "We've been fighting them since 2001," Kvintus stated.

    Blue Water Navy Veterans argue Agent Orange ran into rivers and streams, ending up in Vietnam's bays and harbors.

    Their ships pulled in that water, for drinking, bathing and cooking.

    Distilliation systems didn't eliminate Agent Orange, they enhanced it.

    Kvintus has three diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure.

    Former Navy Commander now attorney John Wells, executive director of Military Veterans Advocacy, fought the VA in Congress and the courts.

    "It feels very good. I mean we've been fighting for this for eight years," Wells said.

    Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill restoring the rights to Blue Water Navy Veterans that the VA stripped away.

    Senator Mike Lee (R) Utah effectively torpedoed the bill when he asked for more studies on the matter by the VA.

    The VA can fight the Court of Appeals the ruling by taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    If it does, Wells is confident the VA will lose there too.

    Wells points out the fight for Veterans benefits doesn't stop here.

    "We have the Guam bill coming up and we have general toxic exposure," he said.

    "We have millions of Veterans exposed to various forms of toxic exposure. We can't stop with Blue Water Navy, this is just the first step."


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  • Vet Benefits


    Different government programs have different Veteran criteria

    There is no standardized legal definition of "military Veteran" in the United States. Veteran benefits weren't created all at one time. They've been added one at a time for more than 200 years, and each time Congress passed a new law authorizing and creating a new Veteran benefit, it included eligibility requirements for that particular benefit.

    Whether or not one is considered a "Veteran" by the federal government depends upon which Veteran program or benefit one is applying for.

    Veterans' Preference for Federal Jobs

    Veterans are given preference when it comes to hiring for most federal jobs. However, in order to be considered a Veteran for hiring purposes, the individual's service must meet certain conditions.

    Preference is given to those honorably separated Veterans (this means an honorable or general discharge) who served on active duty in the Armed Forces. Retirees at or above the rank of major or equivalent are not entitled to preference unless they qualify as disabled Veterans.

    For more information about the Veteran's Preference Hiring Program, see the Federal Government's Veteran's Preference Web Page.

    Home Loan Guarantee

    Military Veterans are entitled to a home loan guarantee (within dollar limits) when they purchase a home. While this is commonly referred to as a "VA Home Loan," the money is not actually loaned by the government. Instead, the government acts as a sort of co-signer on the loan, and guarantees the lending institution that they will cover the loan if the Veteran defaults. This can result in a substantial reduction in interest rates, and a lower down payment requirement.

    For more information, see the VA's Home Loan Guarantee Web site.

    Burial in a VANational Cemetery

    To qualify as a Veteran for the purposes of burial in a VA National Cemetery also depends on the conditions and period of service. Any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who dies on active duty is obviously eligible.

    Any Veteran who was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable is usually eligible as well.

    Service beginning after September 7, 1980, as an enlisted person, and service after October 16, 1981, as an officer, must be for a minimum of 24 continuous months or the full period for which the person was called to active duty (as in the case of a Reservist called to active duty for a limited duration) to qualify for VA National Cemetery burial.

    Undesirable, bad conduct, and any other type of discharge other than honorable may or may not qualify the individual for Veterans benefits, depending upon a determination made by a VA Regional Office. Cases presenting multiple discharges of varying character are also referred for adjudication to a VA Regional Office.

    For more criteria for burial at Arlington National Cemetery can be viewed on the VA's National Cemetery's Web Site.

    Military Funeral Honors

    The Department of Defense (DOD) is responsible for providing military funeral honors. "

    Upon the family's request, every eligible Veteran receives a military funeral honors ceremony, to include folding and presenting the United States burial flag and the playing of Taps. The law defines a military funeral honors detail as consisting of two or more uniformed military persons, with at least one being a member of the Veteran's parent service of the armed forces.

    For more information, see the DoD's Military Funeral Honors Web site.

    Active DutyMontgomery GI Bill

    In all cases, the ADMGIB expires 10 years after discharge or retirement. To be eligible, one must have an honorable discharge. To retain MGIB benefits after discharge, in most cases, one must serve at least 36 months of active duty, if they had a four-year active duty contract, or at least 24 months of active duty, if they signed up for a two or three-year active duty contract (there are some exceptions to this rule).

    For complete details, see our ADGIB Article.

    Post-9/11 GI Bill

    If you have at least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after September 10, 2001, and are still on active duty, or if you are an honorably discharged Veteran or were discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days, you may be eligible for this VA-administered program. See details.

    Service-Disabled VA Life Insurance

    To be eligible for basic Service-Disabled Veterans Insurance (S-DVI), a Veteran must have been released from active duty under other than dishonorable conditions on or after April 25, 1951. He/she must have received a rating for a service-connected disability and must be in good health except for any service-connected conditions. An application must be made within two years of the granting of service-connection for a disability.

    For complete details, see the VA Life Insurance Web site.

    VA Disability Compensation

    Disability compensation is a benefit paid to a Veteran because of injuries or diseases that happened while on active duty or were made worse by active military service. It is also paid to certain Veterans disabled from VA health care.

    The amount of basic benefit paid varies depending on the nature of your disability. Note: You may be paid additional amounts, in certain instances, if:

    • you have very severe disabilities or loss of limb(s)
    • you have a spouse, child(ren), or dependent parent(s)
    • you have a seriously disabled spouse

    For complete information, see the VA's Disability Compensation Web site.

    VA Disability Pension

    Disability Pension is a benefit paid to wartime Veterans with limited income who are no longer able to work.

    You may be eligible if:

    • you were discharged from service under other than dishonorable conditions
    • you served 90 days or more of active duty with at least 1 day during a period of wartime. (However, anyone who enlisted after September 7, 1980, generally has to serve at least 24 months or the full period for which a person was called or ordered to active duty in order to receive any benefits based on that period of service)
    • you are permanently and totally disabled, or are age 65 or older
    • your family income is below a yearly limit set by law

    VA Medical Care

    The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides a broad spectrum of medical, surgical, and rehabilitative care to eligible Veterans.

    If you have a discharge other than honorable, you may still be eligible for care. As with other VA benefits programs, the VA will determine if your specific discharge was under conditions considered to be other than dishonorable.

    The length of your service may also matter. It depends on when you served. There’s no length of service requirement for:

    • Former enlisted persons who started active duty before September 8, 1980, or
    • Former officers who first entered active duty before October 17, 1981

    The number of Veterans who can be enrolled in the health care program is determined by the amount of money Congress gives VA each year. Since funds are limited, VA set up priority groups to make sure that certain groups of Veterans are able to be enrolled before others.

    For more information, see the VA's Health Care Web site.


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  • PTSD Vet Lied


    A Veteran from Fairport pleaded guilty to lying about suicides he says he witnessed overseas in order to claim disability benefits and claim tens of thousands of dollars.

    Michael Pecka, 33, filed a claim for VA Disability Benefits in 2011 claiming that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from witnessing the suicide of two fellow soldiers while deployed to Kuwait in 2004-2005 with the Army Reserve.

    But investigators with the Department of Veterans Affairs determined that Pecka "lied about being present for either suicide, lied about observing either suicide, lied about being involved in the investigation of either suicide, and in the case of one of the soldiers, was not even in the same country at the time he committed suicide," according to the office of U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy, Jr.

    Due to the high disability rating that Pecka received because of his PTSD claims, he received more than $92,000 in tax free disability benefits that he wasn't legally entitled to.

    Pecka filed the initial claim while he was an inmate in federal prison for an unrelated bank fraud conviction. Investigators said he repeated his false claims about observing the suicides on government forms in 2011 and 2014.

    He faces five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both. Pecka is scheduled to be sentenced on January 24, 2019.


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  • VA secretaries spar


    WASHINGTON — The fight over extending benefits to “blue water” Veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam is now pitting former Veterans Affairs secretaries against each other, adding to the confusion over Congress’ next steps.

    Last week, four former VA secretaries — Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson, James Peake and Bob McDonald — wrote to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee urging lawmakers not to grant presumptive illness status to roughly 90,000 blue water Veterans who claim exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, saying there is insufficient proof for their cases.

    “(This legislation) is based on what we believe to be inconclusive evidence to verify that these crews experience exposure to Agent Orange while their vessels were underway,” the group wrote. “We urge the committee to defer action … until such a study is completed and scientific evidence is established to expand presumptions to those at sea.”

    The recommendation is in line with arguments laid out by current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie earlier this month. Department officials have argued that granting the presumptive status to Veterans could upend the system by establishing new, non-scientific criteria for awarding benefits.

    But advocates for the Vietnam Veterans have argued that scientific proof of exposure is impossible given that proper sampling was not done decades ago, as the ships patrolled the waters around the South China Sea.

    They say rare cancers and other unusual illnesses clustering among the blue water Veterans should be enough to spur action from Congress.

    Earlier this year, members of the House agreed. They overwhelmingly passed legislation that would require VA officials to automatically assume those Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange for benefits purposes, the same status granted to troops who served on the ground in Vietnam or on ships traveling upon inland rivers.

    Under current department rules, the blue water Veterans can receive medical care for their illnesses through VA but must prove toxic exposure while on duty to receive compensation for the ailments. Advocates have argued that VA officials are systematically denying those claims.

    In a letters to Wilkie and the committee this week, John Wells — counsel to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association — blasted the department’s stance as unfair and inhumane.

    “Whether (the opposition) is due to bureaucratic intransigence or incompetence I do not know,” he wrote. “The bottom line, however, is that they have misrepresented and ‘cherry picked’ evidence to support their flawed position. That is a stain on the national honor.”

    Wells and other advocates have an ally in at least one former VA leader. David Shulkin, who was fired by Trump earlier this year, petitioned the Senate committee this week to move ahead on the issue, calling it a matter of honoring the Veterans’ sacrifice.

    “As Secretary, I was faced with the dilemma of what to do when there was insufficient evidence to make a reasonable conclusion,” he wrote. “I stated then — and continue to believe — that in the absence of reliable data to guide a decision, the answer must not be to simply deny benefits.

    “When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us.”

    Moving ahead with the legislation could prove expensive for the department. House officials estimated the cost of extending benefits to be about $1.1 billion over 10 years, but current VA officials have insisted the total is closer to $5.5 billion.

    For now, the legislation remains stalled in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has said the issue is among his top priorities but has also voiced concerns about whether the House measure as written covers the cost and scope of the problem.

    Wilkie is scheduled to appear before the committee on Sept. 26 to discuss a host of reform efforts at the department since he took over the top leadership post on July 30.


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  • Claims Process


    What Is a Fully Developed Claim?

    The Fully Developed Claims (FDC) program is an optional initiative that offers Veterans and survivors faster decisions from VA on compensation, pension, and survivor benefit claims.

    Veterans and survivors simply submit all relevant records in their possession, and those records which are easily obtainable, such as private medical records, at the time they make their claim and certify that they have no further evidence to submit. VA can then review and process the claim more quickly.

    Many Types of Claims

    There are many types of claims for disability compensation. For example, if you're filing a VA claim for the very first time, you have an original claim. A reopened claim means you have new and material evidence and you want VA to reconsider a claim it once denied. There are also new claims, secondary claims, and special claims.

    To learn more about which type of claim you may have and the evidence and forms you need with your submission, view the Claims and Evidence page. Your claim must meet all the applicable requirements listed to be considered for the FDC program.

    Who Can File anFDC?

    Veterans may file an FDC for disability compensation for the following reasons:

    • An injury, disability, or condition believed to have occurred or been aggravated by military service.
    • A condition caused or aggravated by an existing service-related condition.

    Veterans and their families and survivors may also file pension or dependency and indemnity compensation (survivor) claims at these pages:

    Why Use theFDC Process?

    FDC puts you in control, and it's faster and risk-free.

    By filing an FDC, Veterans and survivors take charge of their claim by providing all the evidence at once. By then certifying that there is no more evidence, VA can issue a decision faster.

    File an FDC without risk. Participation will not affect the attention your claim receives from qualified VA rating staff or the benefits to which you're entitled. If VA determines other non-federal records exist and are required to decide a claim, VA will simply remove the claim from the FDC program and process it through the traditional claims process. Once you initiate your FDC, you'll have up to one year to complete it. Should VA approve your claim, you'll be paid back to the day you initiated your claim.

    What's theBest Way to File anFDC?

    • The best way to file an FDC is electronically at Once you log on to your account, VA recommends you appoint an accredited Veterans Service Officer to help you initiate your claim, gather the required medical records and evidence, and submit your claim. If you don't yet have an account, register today.
    • If you prefer to file your FDC by paper, complete VA Form 21-526EZ and visit your local regional office. You can appoint an accredited Veterans Service Officer to help you prepare and submit your claim. You can also appoint your accredited Veterans Service Officer online at

    How Should I Prepare MyFDC?

    • Register for an account.
    • Next, appoint an accredited Veterans Service Officer who can provide free, expert assistance.
    • Gather relevant documents, such as private medical records. While VA will obtain Federal records on your behalf, such as your DD-214 or service medical records, submitting them, if you have them will save time. If you believe there is not a notation in your service record describing your disability, submit letters from friends or those you served with that tell us about the facts of your claim ("buddy statements").
    • Initiate your claim at or call 1-800-827-1000 for assistance.


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  • Benefits Earned


    That many U.S. Veterans didn’t receive the educational benefits they were owed in recent months is inexcusable.

    What would be an even greater outrage, however, is if the federal government allows these mistakes to persist.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs must develop a clear plan to ensure GI Bill recipients receive their proper housing stipends and other educational benefits as soon as possible. The technology failures that reportedly caused thousands of Veterans to receive late or incorrect benefit payments in 2018 should be swiftly corrected.

    There can be no more excuses.

    So far, VA officials have offered little assurance that the situation is under control. After making a series of confusing statements, VA officials now say all GI bill recipients will receive the full housing payments and other benefits they are owed, retroactively if need be.

    But while the VA committed to correcting some of its computer problems by Dec. 1, 2019, it still looks as if it will be many months before all Veterans are made whole.

    That uncertainty is unacceptable for student Veterans who rely on precise benefit amounts to pay for tuition, food and rent.

    The chaos is particularly uncalled for because the VA had a year to implement changes mandated by the Forever GI bill, as noted by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, at a recent committee hearing. The agency has said changes to how housing payments are calculated under that bill precipitated the recent IT failures and delays.

    Congress did the right thing by stepping in last month and setting a deadline for the VA to fix its backlog of incorrect payments. But the compliance date of Jan. 1, 2020 remains too far away — especially since the VA was supposed to have already implemented these changes months ago.

    As Murray told VA Secretary Robert Wilkie last month, “These are basic tasks that the VA cannot get wrong.” Murray and U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, recently signed onto a letter calling for an inspector general investigation into the VA’s payment problems.

    To their credit, both houses of Congress also passed legislation to ensure universities won’t penalize students if the VA misses a tuition payment.

    Yet these are steps Congress should have never had to take in the first place. Nor do they fully address whether the VA will be prepared to roll out other new benefits mandated under the Forever GI Bill in the coming months. Those include a benefits extension for students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs, which is supposed to take effect in August 2019.


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  • Dental Coverage

    Military retirees eligible for the new dental and vision coverage — as well as active duty families eligible for the new vision benefit — can start researching their options in earnest now, with the release of new rates for 2019.

    The enrollment period for coverage under the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program, or FEDVIP, is Nov. 12 to Dec. 10, but the time to start comparisons is now, said Kathy Beasley, director of government relations, health affairs, for the Military Officers Association of America.

    For retirees, the FEDVIP replaces the Tricare Retiree Dental Program, which ends Dec. 31. In order to have dental and vision coverage on Jan. 1, retirees must sign up during the enrollment period. Active duty families are still eligible for dental coverage under Tricare, but if they want the new vision coverage, they must sign up during the enrollment period.

    “We want to get this information out as soon as we can to give people extra time to make their decisions,” Beasley said, noting the Office of Personnel Management had provided the information early, in advance of being published on The rate information is available here, and will be available in early October on the website, along with a comparison tool that helps in making the choice.

    The rates and options vary among the different plans, but according to Beasley, officials with the Office of Personnel Management said the average gross dental premium for 2019 increases by 1.2 percent compared to rates for 2018. That does vary; for example, the FEP BlueDental rates for 2019 are decreasing on average by 6.8 percent for the high option and by 7.8 percent for the standard option, according to William A. Breskin, senior vice president of government programs for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

    The actual premium will depend on the plan chosen, but across the carriers, the average dental premium rates for 2019:

    Average biweekly dental premium*

    Average monthly dental premium*




    Self + 1



    Self + family



    *Actual premium may be higher or lower

    *Actual premium may be higher or lower

    The average vision gross premium is decreasing by 2.8 percent in 2019.

    The actual premium will depend on the plan chosen, but across the carriers, the average vision premium rates for 2019:

    Average biweekly vision premium*

    Average biweekly vision premium*




    Self + 1



    Self + Family



    *Actual premium may be higher or lower

    *Actual premium may be higher or lower

    It’s difficult to compare costs under the new plan with current costs under the Tricare Retiree Dental Program because the TRDP is a “one size fits all” program.

    Beasley said many MOAA members have said they looked at the 2018 FEDVIP prices compared to TRDP, and can’t find the exact same coverage and prices for comparison purposes. The FEDVIP offers a variety of different plans and options, with 10 different companies offering dental options for dental coverage, and four different companies offering vision coverage.

    She said officials at OPM, the Defense Health Agency, military service organizations and Veterans service organizations have joined forces in the last few months to get the word out to retirees about the new retiree dental plan options, but some apparently don’t know about the changes. She said she was in Huntsville, Alabama, giving a briefing, and about half of the retirees she spoke to had heard about the changes.

    As retirees evaluate their choices for the new dental plan, Beasley suggests that if they like their current dentist, they should ask their dentist whether they accept a FEDVIP plan, and talk about next year’s dental needs.

    “Your dentist knows your dental health and what you might anticipate in the future," she said. "Do your due diligence and look at the pricing. Use the plan comparison tool, and make your decision based on that.”


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  • Mental Condition Rating


    How the VA Rates Mental Disorders

    The VA determines ratings for hundreds of different disabilities according to very specific criteria based on federal law. If you are interested, you can access the schedule of ratings for yourself here at the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Today, we’ll look at the rating schedule for general mental disorders. Many physical disabilities have rating schedules that are based on objective, measurable criteria. For example, ankylosis (a term for a fusion of joint bones that causes immobility) of the knee can be rated anywhere from 30% (if the knee is able to be fully extended despite the ankylosis or if the knee can be flexed between 0 and 10 degrees of movement) to 60% (if the knee cannot be flexed past 45 degrees). The rating criteria for general mental disorders are more subjective. This is due to the fact that the severity of mental disorders is usually not as easy to evaluate as the severity of physical disorders.

    This schedule covers a variety of mental disorders from PTSD to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Eating disorders have their own specific schedule. The schedule ranges from 0% (non-compensable) to 100% (in which an individual is considered unemployable and entitled to receive the maximum level of compensation).

    General VA Rating Formula for Mental Disorders

    • 0% – This category is for Veterans who have the diagnosis but do not show enough symptoms to impair work performance or social functioning or to require regular medication. No compensation is awarded at this level.
    • 10% – In order to meet this rating, a Veteran must have mild symptoms that impair work performance and social function only during times of high stress. This rating is also appropriate for Veterans whose symptoms are managed by continuous medication.
    • 30% – This rating requires a generally regularly functioning Veteran to have work and social impairment with occasional decreases in work performance due to symptoms from their diagnosed disorder. At times, Veterans in this category may be unable to do certain tasks related to work due to their symptoms. These symptoms range from depressed mood, anxiety, suspiciousness, weekly or less frequent panic attacks, trouble sleeping, to mild memory loss.
    • 50% – This rating requires a Veteran to have regular impairment of work and social functioning due to their symptoms. The symptoms may range from a flattened affect (not being able to show any emotion, good or bad); “talking in circles;” panic attacks that happen more than once a week; trouble understanding complex commands; poor short- and long-term memory; impaired judgment; trouble with abstract thinking; disturbances in motivation or mood; and trouble making and maintaining relationships.
    • 70% – In order to meet the criteria for this rating, a Veteran must suffer from impairment in most, if not all, of the following areas: work, school, family relations, judgment, thinking, or mood. There are many symptoms that may cause impairment, among them suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide); obsessive rituals interfering with daily activities (for example, compulsive hand-washing); illogical, obscure, or irrelevant speech; continuous panic or depression affecting the ability to function on one’s own; impaired impulse control (for example, irritability with periods of violence in response to minor inconveniences); spatial disorientation (getting lost or disoriented); neglect of personal appearance or hygiene (intentionally or unintentionally not showering or brushing one’s teeth); difficulty adapting to stressful circumstances, including at work; and inability to make or keep up professional and personal relationships. Even if you do not have any other disabilities, a single mental condition rated at 70% means you may be qualified to receive individual unemployability benefits.
    • 100% – The highest possible rating. A Veteran rated at 100% is considered totally disabled. As such, the requirements for this category are very severe. A Veteran who receives this rating must be totally impaired due to symptoms such as overall impairment in thought processes or communication; persistent delusions or hallucinations (believing things that are not true or seeing and/or hearing things that are not there); inappropriate behavior (for example, undressing oneself in public); persistent danger of hurting self or others (including suicide attempts); recurrent inability to perform activities of daily living (this includes feeding oneself, bathing oneself, dressing oneself, and using the toilet); disorientation to time (being unsure of time of day, date, or year) or place; memory loss to the degree of forgetting the names of close relatives, one’s own occupation, or one’s own name. This rating entitles you to the same benefits as an award of individual unemployability.

    Why are mental disorders so hard to measure?

    As discussed above, mental conditions are harder to measure than most physical conditions. It is not uncommon for a person to have symptoms that fit into two different rating categories. Applicable law states that when a Veteran displays symptoms that could fit into two different rating categories, the higher rating should be assigned if the disability overall fits the criteria for that rating. Take the example of Mr. X, a Veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD. Mr. X’s PTSD symptoms include trouble sleeping (30% category) and weekly panic attacks (30% category). He also gets lost very easily (70% category), which never happened before his diagnosis. Mr. X’s wife has to remind him to brush his teeth and take regular showers (70% category). Mr. X is retired from his former job as an office manager. He had to retire because dealing with employees and clients every day got to be too stressful (70% category). He also had trouble remembering to make calls, even if his secretary reminded him about them (50% category). Even though Mr. X has PTSD symptoms that could fall into three different rating categories, he should be assigned the 70% rating because he fits the overall criteria for that category.

    Mental disorders are very common for Veterans to experience, and can be just as disabling as a physical condition. If you have been diagnosed with a mental disorder and any of these symptoms sound familiar to you, you should apply for VA benefits to receive the compensation you deserve.


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  • Ind Unemploy


    As a VA claims processor, Veterans often ask me about Individual Unemployability (IU), also called Total Disability based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU). The following is a more formal version of what I tell them.

  • Leaked Document


    WASHINGTON — More than 238,000 of the 847,000 Veterans with pending applications for health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs have already died, according to an internal VA document provided to The Huffington Post.

    Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA’s Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta and a past whistleblower on the VA’s failings, provided HuffPost with an April 2015 report titled “Analysis of Death Services,” which reviews the accuracy of the VA’s Veteran death records. The report was conducted by staffers in the VA Health Eligibility Center and the VA Office of Analytics.

    Flip to page 13 and you’ll see some stark numbers. As of April, there were 847,822 Veterans listed as pending for enrollment in VA health care. Of those, 238,657 are now deceased, meaning they died after they applied for, but never got, health care.

    Pending Enrollment

    While the number is large — representing nearly a third of those listed as pending — some of the applicants may have died years ago. The VA has no mechanism to purge the list of dead applicants, and some of those applying, according to VA spokeswoman Walinda West, likely never completed the application, yet remain on the pending list anyway. West said the VA electronic health record system has been in place since 1985, suggesting some of the data may be decades old and some of those people may have gone on to use other insurance.

    About 81 percent of Veterans who come to the VA “have either Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare or some other private insurance,” said West. “Consequently, some in pending status may have decided to use other options instead of completing their eligibility application.”

    But Davis disputed West on every point. For starters, an incomplete application would never be listed as a pending application, he said. Beyond that, the health records system West is referring to is just that: general health records, not pending applications for enrollment in health care. The VA has only required enrollment in health care since 1998, he said, and there was no formal application process before that. Davis provided an internal VA chart that shows backlogged applications only beginning in 1998.

    Benefits Applications

    As for some Vets having other insurance, Davis said it is “immaterial and a farce” to suggest that means VA shouldn’t be providing Vets with the health care they earned.

    “VA wants you to believe, by virtue of people being able to get health care elsewhere, it’s not a big deal. But VA is turning away tens of thousands of Veterans eligible for health care,” he said. “VA is making it cumbersome, and then saying, ‘See? They didn’t want it anyway.’”

    At a minimum, the high number of dead people on the pending list indicates a poor bookkeeping process that overstates the number of living applicants — a number that should be closer to 610,000.

    This waiting list is unrelated to the VA backlog that made news last year, which left Vets who already had coverage with extremely long wait times. VA press secretary Victoria Dillon told HuffPost the agency has made strides on that front, doubling the number of its appointments from 3.5 million to 7 million since last year.

    Davis sent copies of the report to House and Senate committees that oversee Veterans affairs, and to the White House, hoping to spur congressional and presidential action to pressure VA to clear its health care backlog.

    A spokesman for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee did not respond to a request for comment. Eric Hannel, the staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said his team is looking into the report’s findings.

    “We take it seriously,” said Hannel.

    A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

    Davis recently sent a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, laying out the problems with the health care backlog. He highlighted that 34,000 combat Veterans are among those listed as pending for health care — none of whom should be on that list since combat Veterans are granted five years of guaranteed eligibility for VA health care.

    “They have no business being there,” he said. “These are men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

    The best thing President Barack Obama can do, said Davis, is force the VA to allow Veterans to upload their so-called DD-214 forms when they apply for health care. The form is a lifelong document that shows a person’s military record. If Veterans could use it to show their eligibility for health care, and if the VA assigned staff to review all of the pending applications, it would clear the logjam in the system, he said.

    “The White House has the ability to direct the VA to do this immediately,” said Davis. “That would get rid of the pending eligibility issue.”

    This story and its headline have been updated to clarify which VA backlog was revealed in the new document.


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  • Dave Nichol


    Clintonville resident Dave Nichol struggles with the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. He is convinced his condition is the result of exposure to Agent Orange during two tours of duty toVietnam. But like thousands of other Navy Veterans who served on ships offshore, Dave’s claims for disability benefits have been denied.

    But a new federal court appeals court ruling has given Nichol reason to hope.

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Court Circuit has issued a 9-2 decision that says the same disability benefits offered to Veterans who had boots on the ground and who patrolled inland rivers should also be offered to sailors who served on ships offshore.

    Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant, has been linked to numerous health conditions including Parkinson's. But the VA has cited a lack of science to connect the chemical to ships that were two miles or more offshore.

    So-called “Blue Water Navy” Veterans say they pumped water onto their ships that was desalinated and used for drinking, cooking and bathing. That water, they argue, contained runoff from the millions of gallons of Agent Orange sprayed on low-lying swampland.

    Nichol’s wife, Jackie Neumann-Bloom says the ruling is long overdue. “You know a lot of these guys have already died,” Neumann-Bloom said. “You know the old tag line, deny, deny, deny until they die. That’s pretty pathetic.”

    The ruling means that Nichol should be presumed eligible for benefits. He says he’ll believe it when he sees his first check. “The VA seems to be able to do whatever it wants regardless of what the judge says,” Nichol says. “They’ve proven it time and time again.”

    The VA could still appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. A spokeswoman told NBC4 “VA is reviewing this decision and will determine an appropriate response.”


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  • 1 fine


    A man accused of misleading Veterans to turn over much of their military retirement or disability benefits has been ordered to stop engaging in the illegal scheme of pension poaching.

    But he’ll only have to pay a $1 fine and cooperate in an ongoing investigation.

    Despite finding that Mark Corbett’s acts were deceptive and unfair and likely caused “substantial injury” to Veterans, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau handed Corbett a monetary penalty of just $1, according to Monday’s consent order.

    In announcing the settlement with Corbett on Wednesday, the bureau said the $1 fine accounts for Corbett’s inability to pay more based on sworn financial statements that he provided to the bureau and his ongoing cooperation with the agency’s investigation.

    Corbett is also named in a separate federal lawsuit filed in 2017 by three Veterans who claim Corbett and others illegally bilked Veterans desperate for cash out of millions of dollars from their military pensions and benefits, according to court documents.

    It wasn’t immediately clear how the bureau’s order would affect that case.

    Corbett, according to the bureau’s consent order, brokered contracts for the so-called Doe Companies. He marketed to Veterans online who searched the internet for loans to Veterans or for pension sales. In turn, he sought investors interested in buying Veterans’ income streams. Veterans would receive a payment ranging from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars; in exchange, they would repay a much larger amount by signing over to investors all or part of their monthly pension or disability payments, typically for five to 10 years.

    Veterans often experienced funding delays and were not informed of the interest rates or the commission earned by Corbett.

    The contracts required Veterans to go into their Department of Veterans Affairs or Defense Finance and Accounting Service online portal and route their benefits directly into a bank account controlled by the investors. If the contract was only for a part of a pension, the companies would receive the Veterans’ entire direct-deposit or monthly allotment and then remit a portion of it back to the Veterans’ bank accounts.

    Veterans were also required to purchase life insurance policies as collateral.

    Federal law prohibits agreements under which another person acquires the right to receive a Veteran’s pension payments, the bureau’s consent order notes.

    It appears Corbett tried to skirt the law by telling Veterans “that this is not a loan, you are selling a product for a set price,” according to the consent order.

    That lines up with what Corbett told the American Association of Retired Persons in 2014: “We buy income streams. Everything we do is completely legal and legitimate. We’re completely transparent,” he was quoted in an AARP online article.

    He said business was booming and he received 30 to 50 calls a day from people who want cash for their pensions.

    “The first thing I do is try to talk them out of it,” Corbett was quoted in the AARP article. “It’s expensive money. I tell them: ‘Don’t sell your pension unless you have a really good plan for the money.’”

    As part of the bureau’s settlement with Corbett, he must help the agency identify other Veterans affected by his scheme.

    In the case currently before a district court judge in South Carolina, the Veterans maintain defendants extracted commissions as high as 40 percent of the sum received by Veterans, without disclosing this to the investors or the Veteran, according to court documents. A federal judge in April rejected a motion for dismissal.


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  • Medical Records


    In any claim for VA disability benefits, evidence is needed to help prove the claim. Medical evidence can be one of the most important pieces to the puzzle. It is important to know how you can obtain your own medical records, whether it is through a private doctor or medical facility and through a VA Medical Center and/or facility.

    The VA has a “duty to assist” Veterans or, in other words, help them obtain their medical records to support their VA disability claim. Even though the VA has a duty to assist, it is the Veteran’s responsibility to provide any and all evidence that they wish to submit to the VA to help support their claim.

    VA Medical Records

    If you have been treated at a VA Medical Center, the medical records can be requested directly from the VA Medical Center by using VA Form 10-5345a release or by visiting your local VA Medical Center. When using this VA Form 10-5345a, it is important that you are using the most updated form available. You do not want to be using an out of date form to help keep the VA from denying your request for your records.

    Another way to access your VA medical records is through an online portal called My HealtheVet. This website allows Veterans to create an online account where they can access their VA medical records. With this online account, there are three kinds of accounts available: a basic account which provides limited access to features available that is usually self-entered, an advanced account, and a premium account which gives the highest level of access to all of the sites’ features. First-time users should visit or contact their local VA Medical Center for assistance.

    Private Medical Records

    You can obtain records from private doctors or hospitals by simply contacting them and asking for your records. Some private facilities may request that you fill out a release form for them to release your records to you or they may have their own online portal that is similar to My HealtheVet, where you can access your private medical records.

    You may also request that the VA obtain these records for you by signing a release form.

    National Personnel Records Center

    The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) is a part of the National Archives and Records Administration. The NPRC stores records for Veterans who have been discharged or have retired from the military. Most of these records are not stored electronically so it may take some time for the records that are being requested to be found. Most of these records are paper records that have been stored in boxes.

    You can request personnel and service treatment records from the NPRC as well as a copy of your DD214 should you need a copy. You can request NPRC records online or by using a Standard Form 180. Any specific information like the name of the hospital where you were admitted for treatment during service or where you served in combat may be beneficial to include in your request.

    Why Are Your Medical Records Important?

    Medical records that are relevant to your claim can help paint a picture of the symptoms and the severity of your claimed condition. It is important that you always report worsening symptoms to your doctors so that your doctor can notate your worsening symptoms. This is always helpful in cases for an increased rating. Medical records establish the types of disabilities you have been diagnosed with and provide clinical findings, lab results, and important medical opinions from your medical providers who are most familiar with your condition.


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  • MPTF


    The Motion Picture & Television Fund’s VA Benefits Assistance Program has helped Hollywood’s military Veterans and their families collect more than $500,000 in unclaimed retroactive Veterans Affairs benefits over the last five years — and more than $85,000 in ongoing monthly benefits, all tax free for life.

    On Saturday, the MPTF will hold its 2nd annual VA Benefits Screening Day to help even more Vets and their families receive the benefits they’ve earned.

    The entertainment industry may not be thought of as one that employs many military Vets, but the MPTF has found that about 10% of its clients are Veterans or family members eligible for VA benefits. Since 2014, when the MPTF’s Social Services Department began formally tracking outcomes, it’s averaged more than 600 annual screenings of entertainment industry Veterans, their surviving spouses, and parents of industry members who are eligible. Through these screenings and linkages to the VA for formal filing and processing, the MPTF program has helped Veterans of military campaigns from World War II and the Korean War to Vietnam and the Iraq War.

    “We’ve made it our mission to reduce barriers to access to these benefits,” Naomi Rodda, director of MPTF Community Social Services, told Deadline. “Our message to industry Veterans and their families is: Don’t leave money on the table. You served our country and you are entitled to these benefits.”

    The majority of MPTF’s Veterans are identified and screened when they reach out for other services and programs offered by the fund. Rodda, who recently obtained her own accreditation as a VA Claims Agent – which allows the MPTF to have a more direct role in assisting its military Veterans and their families throughout the claims benefits process – says industry Veterans and their families should not be deterred by the “bad rap” the VA bureaucracy has received in some quarters.

    “The biggest lesson that I’ve learned in working on behalf of the Veterans for almost 10 years now,” she said, “is that the individual Veterans’ Service Officers that are responsible for filing and processing MPTF’s clients’ claims have been very helpful and willing to go the extra mile to resolve complex issues.”

    The MPTF notes that as word of its program has spread, two industry donors have stepped up with financial support of $100,000 each to broaden and sustain its work.

    Saturday’s 2nd annual VA Benefits Screening Day will be held at the offices of the Costume Designers Guild, IATSE Local 892, in Burbank. Although a limited number of screening appointments remain for the event, MPTF plans to hold additional screenings and outreach events throughout 2019.

    Additional information: call (323) 634-3888 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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  • JD Williams


    A triple amputee Veteran will have his full-time caregiver services reinstated after the Tennessean reported Wednesday that the Nashville VA initially decided to deny the level of his caregiver's benefits.

    Staff Sergeant J.D. Williams lost his right arm and both legs while deployed with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2010.

    He was discharged and sent home, where his wife, Ashlee Williams, was assigned and paid by the VA to be his caregiver.

    But after six years, she wrote on Facebook on Nov. 17, the VA decided to lower her husband to the lowest tier of the program, determining that he no longer needs a full-time caregiver.

    She claimed that the VA assumed that the care she provided her husband, including helping her husband with applying prosthetics and lifting him into a wheelchair about 10 times a day, was part of her "spousal duty."

    "...should have been included on the marriage certificate according to the VA," Ashlee Williams wrote in a post that was shared more than 25,000 times on Facebook by Wednesday morning.

    Williams wrote in a separate post that while she still has caregiver designation, being dropped to the lowest tier in the program has been a "pattern" she has seen in other VA caregiver cases.

    "I'm just a minuscule part of this MUCH Larger problem," she wrote.

    Nashville VA is part of the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System. When asked by the Tennessean to comment on the case, the VA said they will reverse their action Wednesday.

    "In this case, the reassessment process was handled incorrectly, and VA is taking steps today to reinstate Mr. Williams’ caregiver benefits to their original level," said Chris Vadnais, a TVHS spokesman.

    He said Williams' occupational therapy assessment responses were not fully considered by the team assessing his benefits, leading to an "improper reduction."

    "The goal of all VA health care programs is to help Veterans achieve their highest level of health, quality of life and independence," said Vadnais.

    The Williams did not respond to requests for comment.

    Caregiver details the VA's process

    According to Ashlee Williams, when a caregiver is dropped to the lowest tier, they're given an opportunity to appeal. But the appeal is reviewed by the same clinical eligibility team that made the decision to change caregivers' status, and the appeals are most often denied.

    Then the caregiver is removed.

    The practice of dropping the caregiver's to a lower tier before the appeal and dismissal helps ensure the VA pays the cheapest rate, Williams said.

    "The VA now only has to pay them the 3 months at the lower tier. It is a SIGNIFICANT difference," she wrote. "THIS is why I'm speaking out. No-one deserves this. I will appeal my decision to be lowered and fight for every other caregiver going through this too."

    Williams noted that she had made six attempts to reach the VA Caregiver Support Coordinator on Friday before posting, but ultimately went public due to the VA’s inaction.

    An OB-GYN at the VA hospital made the decision, according to her post.

    Vadnais said the provider was a primary care physician who works in a women's clinic, not an OB-GYN.

    VA to establish clearer assessment

    The VA MISSION Act gives the VA the ability to make these changes to participants of the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, while expanding the program to those who care for Veterans.

    The VA, Vadnais said, periodically reassesses participants to ensure that Veterans and caregivers have everything they need to continue progressing toward improved health and wellness.

    "Eligibility for VA’s caregivers program is complex, and determinations are often made by multidisciplinary teams, including primary care doctors, rehab professionals and mental health clinicians," he said.

    The VA, he said, is working to establish clearer, more objective eligibility criteria for consistency in these determinations.

    "In the meantime, VA is ensuring that all facilities understand better how to differentiate Veterans undergoing positive changes in their needs and capabilities from those who require a consistent or greater level of care," he said.

    'A hundred ways I could have died'

    J.D. Williams was on his second tour in Afghanistan when he led a small six-person team into a village "that had a great deal of resistance," he wrote in a blog post for Retiring Your Boots.

    As they approached, an IED detonated directly beneath him.

    "My whole life started flashing through my head and I could feel an ice-cold tingling sensation all over my body," he wrote.

    When he checked himself for injuries, he saw that his right arm and legs were gone.

    "I (laid) back down and started thinking about life. Chaos going on all around me, I’m laid there thinking I may never see my family, friends, or Montana ever again," he wrote.

    Williams said his team risked their own lives to get him to safety and get him a medical evacuation within 20 minutes, all while exchanging gunfire with the Taliban.

    "As soldiers, we faced the horrors of war and never backed down... I take pride in our country and the brave men and women who defend it. I can honestly say that I would do it all again. I can think of a hundred ways I could have died the day I stepped on that IED but I’m here and I’m extremely thankful for that," he wrote.


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  • Vet with HBP


    WASHINGTON — New research linking Veterans’ high blood pressure with wartime exposure to chemical defoliants could dramatically expand federal disability benefits for tens of thousands of Vietnam-era troops.

    The findings, from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, conclude that “sufficient evidence” exists linking hypertension and related illnesses in Veterans to Agent Orange and other defoliants used in Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s.

    They recommend adding the condition to the list of 14 presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, a group that includes Hodgkin’s Disease, prostate cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. That’s an upgrade from past research that showed a possible but not conclusive link between the toxic exposures and high blood pressure problems later in life.

    If Veterans Affairs officials follow through with the recommendation, it could open up new or additional disability benefits to thousands of aging Veterans who served in those areas and who are now struggling with heart problems.

    Veterans who struggle with high blood pressure issues are eligible for health care at VA facilities. But the illness is eligible for disability benefits in only select cases.

    Adding an illness to VA’s presumptive list means that Veterans applying for disability benefits need not prove that their sickness is directly connected to their time in service. Instead, they only need show that they served in areas where the defoliant was used and that they now suffer from the diseases.

    That’s a significant difference, since proving direct exposure and clear health links can be nearly impossible for ailing Veterans searching for decades-old paper records.

    A change in the designation of hypertension by VA could also add significant new costs to the department’s disability payout expenses.

    In 2010, when then Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki expanded the list of presumptive illnesses for Agent Orange exposure to include ischemic heart disease and Parkinson's, the department estimated additional costs of more than $42 billion over a decade.

    It’s unclear how many Veterans suffer from high blood pressure and would be eligible for disability payments if the change is made. In a statement, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the department “is in the process of evaluating this report and appreciates the work” of the group.

    Regardless the cost, officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars are already calling for VA officials to move ahead with adding hypertension to the list.

    “There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Agent Orange made Veterans sick, it made their children sick, and it brought pain and suffering and premature death to many,” VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement. “Even though it’s been a half century since they were exposed, the results of that exposure is something they continue to live with daily.”

    Over the last year, advocates for “blue water” Navy Veterans — sailors who served in ships off the coastline of Vietnam — have been fighting with department officials over a decision to deny them presumptive status in Agent Orange related claims.

    VA officials have insisted that scientific evidence does not exist linking their illnesses to exposure to the defoliant miles away from the Vietnam mainland.

    The new study is available at the National Academies Press website.


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  • Tricare 002


    If you’re new to TRICARE in 2019, welcome! You’ve joined 9.4 million beneficiaries who receive comprehensive health and dental coverage. You can now connect to a network of military and civilian providers worldwide. Learning about your benefit will help you make the most of your coverage and take command of your health this year.

    Choose or Change TRICARE Plans

    For TRICARE Prime (including the US Family Health Plan) and TRICARE Select, you may only choose or change your enrollment when you or a family member experiences a Qualifying Life Event (QLE) or during the annual TRICARE Open Season. Other TRICARE plans offer continuous open enrollment.

    When making an enrollment decision, how do you know which TRICARE plans are best for you and your family? Visit the TRICARE Plan Finder to determine which plan best meets your family’s needs. Remember that different family members may be eligible for different plans. You can also use the Compare Plans Tool to compare health plans side-by-side.

    Find a Provider

    TRICARE covers care offered by two types of TRICARE-authorized providers: network and non-network. To locate a provider, visit the TRICARE Find a Doctor Tool. Do you already know the type of provider you’re looking for? You can view provider directories for each of the TRICARE regions.

    Know Your Costs for Care

    Depending on who you are and the plan you have, you may pay out-of-pocket costs. Use the TRICARE Compare Cost Tool to view your costs and compare them with other plans. The TRICARE Costs and Fees Sheet also provides an overview of TRICARE plan costs.

    Keep DEERS Updated

    It’s important that you keep your contact information up-to-date in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). Anytime you experience a change or QLE, update DEERS You have several options for updating your information in DEERS (online, phone, mail). You must keep your information updated in DEERS to remain eligible for TRICARE coverage.

    Learn more about TRICARE by exploring the information and resources on its website. And stay informed by signing up to get updates from TRICARE via email.


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  • Retirement System


    With less than three months to go before the year-end deadline, only one in six service members who are eligible to make the choice to opt in to the new military retirement system have done so, falling far short of prior expectations and raising questions about why the response has been so low.

    About 1.6 million active-duty and reserve troops are eligible to opt into the new retirement system, which promises a smaller pension check for those who complete a 20-year career but offers cash payments into a personal retirement account that service members can keep regardless of how long they stay in the military.

    As of the end of September, 16.5 percent of those eligible service members have opted in to the Blended Retirement System, also known as the BRS, according to defense officials. The deadline for eligible service members to opt in to BRS is Dec. 31.

    Yet within the individual military services, the response has varied significantly. The Marines have the highest opt-in rate, with 36.6 percent opting in to BRS. They’ve continued the trend from earlier this year. More than a third of the service members who opted in to BRS since July are Marines — the smallest service.

    The service with the lowest percentage of enrollment is the Army, at 10.5 percent of eligible soldiers opting in. To date, 20.5 percent of sailors have opted in, and 16.9 percent of airmen.

    The numbers are raising two basic questions: Are people just procrastinating in making their decision? Or are they affirmatively choosing not to opt into the BRS?

    “It’s a really important question for someone to figure out what’s going on,” said Beth Asch, a senior economist at RAND specializing in defense manpower and compensation issues who has done extensive research and analysis on the BRS.

    A 2015 law fundamentally changed the traditional retirement system for all future service members. Yet for troops who were in uniform at the time the law was changed, they now get a choice whether to keep the legacy benefit or to enroll in the new system.

    The traditional retirement system might be better for troops who will definitely complete a 20-year career because the pension checks will be higher. But for younger service members who may decide to leave the military before the 20-year mark — and would get no retirement benefit at all under the traditional system — the new system might be better because it will allow them to accrue some money in a retirement savings account that they can keep.

    The retirement savings is accrued in a Thrift Savings Plan, or TSP.

    All troops entering the military starting in 2018 are automatically enrolled into the new Blended Retirement System. But those with fewer than 12 years of service as of the end of 2017 can make the choice in 2018 to either stay with the legacy system or switch to the new BRS.

    The Army, Navy and Air Force don’t require their service members to take any steps if they’re going to stay with the legacy retirement system. If they do nothing, service members will automatically remain enrolled in the traditional retirement system. But in order to choose the BRS, they must actively take the steps to opt in and fill out paperwork stating that intent.

    The Marine Corps is the only service that requires its members to register their decisions regardless of whether they opt in to the BRS or stay with the legacy system.

    Of the nearly 176,00 Marines eligible to make the choice, 54 percent have done so. Of those Marines, about 30,200 have explicitly decided to remain with the legacy retirement system, or about 17 percent of the total Marines eligible to make the choice. (They can also change their minds and opt in to BRS by Dec. 31.)

    Some are puzzled why more service members haven’t opted in — especially younger enlisted troops with only a few years in the military.

    “I’m a little surprised that the take rate isn’t higher,” said Stephen Pietropaoli, a retired Navy rear admiral who is chief operating officer for Navy Mutual.

    Pietropaoli’s speculation is that most people just haven’t decided.

    “You have to actually sit down and apply some mental energy to do an assessment, an analysis,” of life goals, expectations of being able to continue their military career, their personal finances, and what they’re trading for the portable TSP package, Pietropaoli said.

    “When you give them a whole year to decide, a lot of them will take the whole year,” he said. "But there’s also the possibility that many will miss the deadline for opting in, and there will be dissatisfaction.... That’s what I think the services should be worried about.”

    He said it might help if the other services follow the Marine Corps example: requiring eligible service members to register their decision, whether they are opting in or staying in the legacy system.

    Pentagon officials take a neutral stance, and have said they have no target or goal for opt-in, and no preference for which system individual service members choose. Each decision is an individual one, based on the service member’s circumstances and future plans.

    For more than two years, the Defense Department and the services have been conducting a financial education campaign to inform service members about the features of the new plan, and questions to consider as they compare the features with the legacy plan. That includes a tool that allows service members to plug in their particular numbers and compare the results for staying in the legacy system, and moving to the new system.

    “As we move into the final stage of the opt-in period, [DoD] is continuing its aggressive communications strategy,” said DoD spokeswoman Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason. “This awareness campaign incorporates social media, the Armed Forces Network, direct communications, and local installation commands,” she said.

    Those who are eligible to opt in to the new BRS or stay with the legacy system are active-duty members who had fewer than 12 years of service ― and reserve-component members in a paid status with fewer than 4,320 retirement points ― as of Dec. 31, 2017.

    Those with more time in the military automatically stay with the legacy system; those entering on or after Jan.1, 2018, are automatically enrolled in the BRS. For more information, click here.

    In their research for DoD on the effects of the BRS on retention, RAND Corporation researchers have estimated that virtually all junior enlisted personnel in the pool of people eligible to choose would elect the BRS over the legacy system, as would many personnel who are more senior. The election rate would drop off for those with more years of service.

    “I think the bottom line is that fewer enlisted personnel, especially, are opting in than we would have expected,” said RAND’s Asch.

    “When we do our analysis, we assume people have perfect information, in the sense that they fully understand all the nuances of the plan,” Asch said. “They may not have perfect information about the future, but they understand the plan and they act rationally on it. … They understand the features of it and what it means financially.”

    Retirement may not be on the radar for many young, enlisted personnel, which is why the financial education is particularly important, Asch said. “It could be that they didn’t understand the financial education. … Maybe the education could be improved, although it’s my sense that it’s a very good program."

    “The big question is: why are people leaving money on the table? My thought is that they may be getting advice that’s not necessarily in their best interest,” she said.

    One hypothesis, she said, is that the young troops are looking to others for help in making their decision ― parents, and others around them who are older. “It’s not something most people know about, the pros and cons of the BRS."

    “The thing that makes it tricky is that the decision that’s best for a 30- or 40- or 50-year-old is different than what’s best for a 20- or 25-year-old. … If the influencers tend to be older, they might be giving advice based on their experience, and where they are in their life cycle, and how close they are to retirement, which may not be necessarily in the best interest of the young member.

    “One of the huge advantages of this program is that it’s particularly advantageous for young people who don’t think they’re going to make it to retirement. In fact, we know that most people will not make it to retirement, especially enlisted,” she said.

    According to the Defense Department, currently 81 percent of service members in the legacy retirement system separate with no government retirement benefit. Under the legacy system, only those who stay until they’re eligible for retirement can receive retirement pay.

    Asch said she is neutral on the question of whether or not people should opt in, from the standpoint of DoD force management.

    “But people could be missing out on an opportunity," she said. “Does that mean that everyone should opt in? No. But the fact that we have junior enlisted not opting in, is a shame. …

    “The people who choose not to opt in who are young … I’m not talking about people who have 10 years of service. I’m talking about people with two, three years of service, and are choosing not to opt in, are leaving money on the table, because most of them will not make it to retirement. …

    “They’re going to leave without any benefit, whereas if they opt in, they’d leave with something.”

    Under the new BRS, the retirement pay is reduced by 20 percent for those who stay until they’re eligible for retirement benefits. However, DoD automatically contributes at least 1 percent to the BRS service member’s Thrift Savings Plan, and matches up to 5 percent of the service member’s contributions to his or her TSP. In addition, at the 12-year mark BRS service members receive a one-time payout of continuation pay— active-duty members get 2.5 times their monthly basic pay. Also, BRS service members who stay long enough to qualify for retirement benefits can opt for a partial lump-sum payout.

    The DoD contributions to the TSP and other BRS features are not available to those in the legacy system.


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  • Justice 003


    SAN DIEGO – Michael Vanden Brink pleaded guilty today to stealing thousands of dollars in benefits intended for the widow of a military Veteran. During his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jan M. Adler this morning, Brink admitted that after the widow’s death in 2004, he converted her benefits paid out by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to his own use.

    Brink, 57, acknowledged that H.C.C., the spouse of a deceased Veteran, began to receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation benefits in 1972. Sometime prior to March 2004, H.C.C. began to receive those benefits via direct deposit into a bank account in both her name and Brink’s.

    Brink acknowledged that H.C.C. died on June 30, 2004, at her home in Oceanside, California, and that he was aware of her death and that her benefits should have ceased immediately upon her death. Brink further acknowledged that he knew that he was not entitled to H.C.C.’s benefits, and that he knew that the money rightfully belonged to the United States.

    As a part of his plea, Brink admitted that he received a monthly bank statement for the account, and that he never informed the bank that H.C.C.’s monthly benefits should cease. Instead, Brink admitted that from July 1, 2004 until February 26, 2014, only he had access to and control of all funds in the bank account, and that during that time he converted a total of $145,035 in United States’ money to his own use.

    “For almost a decade, this defendant stole thousands of dollars intended to help the families of our brave men and women in uniform,” said United States Attorney Adam L. Braverman. “This prosecution demonstrates the commitment of the United States Attorney’s Office to protecting the integrity of programs for our Veterans and their families.”

    “This investigation demonstrates the OIG’s commitment to aggressively pursue individuals who defraud VA programs. The VA OIG will continue to identify criminal activity in order to protect the integrity of VA programs.” said Special Agent in Charge A.E. Pleasant, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, Criminal Investigations Division, Western Field Office.

    As a part of his plea agreement, Brink agreed to pay $145,035 in restitution to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Brink faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $390,060 at his sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge John A. Houston on December 10, 2018.

    DEFENDANT                       Case Number 18-cr-3894      

    Michael Vanden Brink           Oceanside, CA.


    Theft of Public Property – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 641

    Maximum penalty: 10 years’ imprisonment, $390,060 fine, restitution


    U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Office of Inspector General – Criminal Investigations Division


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  • Hill and Ponton Logo


    Meaning of Permanent & Total

    First, let’s break down each word in the phrase “permanent and total.” Permanent means that a Veteran has a disability which has no chance, or close to no chance, of the disability improving. The VA considers a disability to be permanent when the medical evidence shows that it is reasonably certain the severity of the Veteran’s condition will continue for the rest of the Veteran’s life. In determining this, the VA is allowed to take into account the Veteran’s age.

    Total means a Veteran’s disability is rated at 100% disabling. Ratings are assigned to a disability based on the VA’s rating schedule. A rating is meant to represent how much the disability impairs a Veteran’s ability to function. In other words, the rating reflects the severity of the disability. If a disability is rated at 100%, then that indicates the Veteran is completely, or totally, disabled.

    A Veteran might have a disability that is rated at 100% (total), but it might not be considered permanent. If a disability is not considered permanent, it is called a temporary disability. Vice versa, a Veteran could have a disability that the VA has determined is permanent, but it is not rated at 100% so it isn’t total. However, when a Veteran has a disability that is considered permanent AND total, there are certain benefits that come into play.

    Permanent and Total Benefits

    If a Veteran has a permanent and total rating they do not have to worry about getting scheduled for VA re-examinations. The VA has already made the determination that the medical evidence shows the disability is not going to improve when they found the disability to be permanent.

    Other benefits that come with permanent and total ratings include:

    • CHAMPVA (The Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs) – This is a comprehensive health care benefit program for spouses and children of Veterans. If a Veteran has a P&T rating their spouse and children can receive health care benefits under this program. Also, if a Veteran who passed away had a P&T rating at the time of death their surviving spouse and children can receive health care benefits under CHAMPVA (Note: the Veteran’s cause of death must have been from a service-connected disability).
    • Chapter 35 Dependents Educational Assistance Program – This provides education and training opportunities for eligible dependents (spouse, son, daughter, stepchildren, adopted children) of a Veteran who has a P&T rating. Unlike CHAMPVA, if a Veteran dies from a non-service connected disability, dependents can still receive Dependents Educational Assistance benefits as long as the Veteran had a P&T rating when they passed away. There is a lot of information regarding Dependents Educational Assistance benefits, so for more details on this program click here.
    • Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) – DIC benefits only become applicable when the Veteran has passed away. If a Veteran had a P&T rating for the 10 years immediately prior to their death, qualifying dependents will be eligible for DIC benefits. However, if the Veteran had a permanent and total rating for LESS THAN 10 years prior to their death, qualifying dependents are only eligible for DIC benefits if the Veteran’s cause of death was service-connected.
    • Certain state-level benefits – state-level benefits for Veteran’s that have a P&T rating range from college and employment resources to free hunting and fishing licenses. For example, in Florida, a Veteran with a P&T rating and an honorable discharge are exempt from paying property tax on their residence. For a comprehensive list of each state’s benefits click here.

    Getting the VA Assign a Permanent & Total Rating

    You can’t file a claim for a permanent and total rating, but you can submit a letter to the VA requesting they find you permanent and total. When submitting this request, you should also send medical evidence that shows your service-connected disability or disabilities are not going to improve in the future. The VA typically makes a determination of permanent and total on their own, but if you have not been found permanent and total it is worth letting the VA know why you should be.

    If you’re unsure whether you’ve been found permanent and total, first look at your rating decision. Some rating decisions will include a permanent and total box that will be checked if the VA found you to be permanently and totally disabled. Another indicator on rating decisions is if there is language that says something like “eligibility to Dependents Educational Assistance Benefits (Chapter 35 DEA benefits) has been established.”


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  • Rating Reductions


    Under certain conditions, VA may reduce your disability rating. Legally, VA is entitled to rating reductions but there are rules they must follow when doing so. But unfortunately, mistakes are still made and VA often does not get rating reductions quite right. So, in this post, we’ll discuss what VA can and cannot do when reducing your rating and what you should do if VA sends notice that your rating may be adjusted.


    The idea is that some service-connected conditions will improve over time or with treatment and VA wants to make sure they are compensating each Veteran according to their present level of disability. For example, if you had service-connected cancer and but it goes into remission, VA would propose a rating reduction because, presumably, your cancer is less disabling – i.e. has less of an impact on your ability to function in life and at work.

    VA normally starts the process of reducing a rating under two circumstances:

    • Scheduled re-examinations. Usually, VA will evaluate (after you are granted service-connection) whether your disability should be scheduled for a future re-examination (a C&P exam) to determine if your benefits need to be adjusted. VA usually makes this determination if they believe your disability can be expected to improve. Typically, the first re-exam will be scheduled 2-5 years from the date of your first Rating Decision.
    • Evidence of change in condition. VA can also order a re-examination at any time if there is new, relevant medical evidence that your disability has improved.

    But disabilities, as you likely know, are complicated. Symptoms of a disability may temporarily decrease but resume at baseline level soon after. Or, for example, symptoms may improve but not enough to significantly (or, as VA would say, materially) improve your ability to function under the ordinary stressors of life or work. So VA has strict rules guiding the process of rating reductions. But, those guidelines are not always applied correctly, so it can help to have an idea of what VA is required to do.


    There are a number of things VA must do when reducing ratings under any circumstances:

    • A proposed rating (as well as a final decision) must be based on a review of the Veteran’s entire medical history
    • VA must show that there has been an actual change in the disability since the last rating decision
    • VA must show that change in the disability reflects material improvement in the Veteran’s ability to function under the ordinary conditions and stressors of life and work
    • Examination reports must be based on thorough examinations

    Additionally, the procedural manual (M21) that VA adjudicators use to process claims states that VA must outline the time period during which your condition is said to have (materially) improved.


    VA is required to send a letter proposing the reduction of your benefits, if the decrease will affect the amount of monthly compensation you receive. The letter is not a final VA decision and so cannot be appealed, but VA gives you the opportunity to respond to the proposal by submitting evidence and/or attending a hearing.

    From the date of the letter, you have 60 days to submit evidence if you believe the reduction is not warranted. Within the first 30 days of the 60-day period, you have the option to request a hearing to be conducted by VA personnel unrelated to the proposed reduction. VA must consider evidence you submit during this period (including the transcript of the hearing, if you choose to attend one) and all previous evidence and medical records associated with your file.

    What are some types of evidence you might submit? You do not need to submit treatment records from your VA Medical Center as VA already has access to those documents. But it can be helpful to submit a medical opinion from an outside, independent doctor if your Compensation and Pension exam was not favorable. Additionally, you may want to submit statements from family, friends, or employers who have observed your ability to function in daily life and/or at work. If you choose not to submit evidence within the 60-day period, VA will issue a final decision reducing your rating.

    If, after 60 days or the review of your submitted evidence, VA sends a final decision that reduces your rating, you can file an appeal with a Notice of Disagreement form.


    For certain special cases, there are rules in place that protect Veterans from rating reductions or severance of their disability benefits.

    Stabilized Ratings: 5 Years or more

    Any rating that has remained at the same level for 5 years or longer is considered “stabilized.” In addition to the general rating reduction rules that VA must follow (see above), VA must show sustained improvement in your condition.

    What does sustained improvement mean? Essentially it means one of two things: Either 1) VA cannot use just one re-examination (C&P exam) to show ‘sustained’ improvement, rather they must show through medical records as well as a C&P re-exam that you are not just temporarily experiencing improvement. Or, 2) VA must show that the evidence in your file predominantly demonstrates ‘sustained.’

    VA must provide an explanation of why they are reasonably certain your condition will continue to show ‘sustained’ improvement.

    100% (Total) Ratings

    VA can reduce a total rating (that is, a rating of 100%) only if there is material improvement in the Veteran’s condition. In addition to the general rating reduction rules, VA must provide evidence that your condition has improved such that there has been an observable change in your ability to function under the conditions of daily life.

    Continuous Ratings: 20 years or more

    Conditions that have been rated at or above a certain rating level for 20 years or longer are considered “continuous.” VA cannot reduce a continuous rating below the original rating level (unless they determine the rating was based on fraud). For example, if a Veteran’s service-connected PTSD was originally rated 30% disabling and fluctuated between 30% and 70% over the next 20 years (without dipping below 30%), VA could not reduce the rating to below 30 percent.


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  • The Hill


    As part of our commitment to those that have served, taxpayers will spend $100 billion in 2019 towards benefits programs for Veterans. Costs for these programs have more than quadrupled since the year 2000. Few programs of this size and importance have received less attention from a policy perspective.

    The VA’s disability compensation system is complex, cumbersome and frequently difficult to navigate. The approval process can be frustrating and slow — from obtaining copies of military service records to undergoing a comprehensive evaluation known as the Compensation and Pension examination, which is used to assign a disability rating from 0-100 percent.

    The exam itself was first conceived in the 1940’s. It has only been modified through iterative changes and may fail to properly acknowledge some of the most common issues facing today’s Veterans, such as post traumatic stress (PTS).  

    Veterans who are dissatisfied with initial decisions often seek higher ratings. Despite real progress by VA in recent years, the backlog of appeals remains large and hundreds of thousands of Veterans wait on a system impeded by legislative restrictions and its own bureaucracy. This perpetuates an adversarial relationship between the Veteran and VA. Many Veterans who struggle to obtain an initial benefits’ decision become locked into a complicated process to prove their needs.

    Few incentives exist for Veterans to improve their health status and decrease their disability rating. Under current policies, Veterans that improve may receive lower monthly payments. This also impacts Veteran's prospects in the workforce.

    A recent study published in The National Bureau of Economic Research found that that changes broadening disability compensation eligibility were associated with a decrease in workforce participation among disabled Veterans. This lies in stark contrast to the large body of evidence suggesting that employment has a clear positive effect on Veteran's physical and mental well-being.

    Disability compensation should be aligned with efforts to facilitate improvements in Veteran's health and financial security. To that end, we believe the following five policy principles should be considered by VA and the 116th Congress. These ideas would allow the VA to test new compensation models as they modernize an antiquated system:

    1. Disability ratings should be updated to reflect contemporary workforce needs. The current system places a high priority on physical attributes necessary for manual labor and does not acknowledge present day opportunities for many disabled Veterans to hold jobs in an increasingly digital economy.
    2. VA should make better use of its vast data to make more personalized disability compensation determinations. Leveraging what has become commonplace in the private sector, predictive analytic models can allow VA to tailor compensation more accurately. It may also be used to predict which Veterans will need more resources later in life due to individual characteristics or known disability profiles. Using these data to provide better initial determinations would allow VA to move away from a flawed and expensive appeals and re-rating process.
    3. VA should utilize best practices in behavioral economics to incentivize decisions that promote well-being and financial independence. Veterans should be incentivized to access healthcare when needed (e.g. PTS treatment). There should be simpler and more efficient linkages between the disability and the healthcare systems. When appropriate, the disability system should be integrated with programs that provide service dogs, adaptive sports and other programs that help Veterans regain functional and financial independence.        
    4. VA should facilitate savings plans in the form of an individualized retirement account to reduce financial uncertainty for Veterans unable to participate in the workforce. With defaults that favor saving, VA can make it easier for Veterans to plan for the long-term financial implications of returning from service with significant disability.  
    5. The benefits program should offer a lump sum payment option. Lump sum payments can provide Veterans with the resources needed to buy a house, start a business, or make other decisions that require capital resources up front. Lump sum payments are also advantageous to taxpayers because they can reduce future liabilities and create greater financial certainty over long lifetimes.

    Reforming Veterans benefits will be controversial, but necessary. If left as is, the current system is at risk of becoming financially unsustainable. Reactionary funding cuts would harm Veterans and further compromise public trust in upholding our responsibility to caring for our Veterans. The commitment Americans have to our Veterans is too important to forgo needed reforms.


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  • TRICARE Logo

    By law, the TRICARE Retiree Dental Program (TRDP) will end on Dec. 31, 2018. New dental plan options for those enrolled in TRDP will be available through the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP). FEDVIP vision coverage will also be available for the first time.

    In case you missed the September webinar, join the TRICARE webinar on Oct. 11, from 2 to 3 p.m. ET, to learn about new dental and vision coverage under FEDVIP. The “New Dental and Vision Coverage Options for TRICARE Beneficiaries” webinar will discuss who is eligible for FEDVIP, as well as how and when to enroll.

    There’s no automatic enrollment into a new dental plan once TRDP ends. For 2019 dental coverage, retirees and their family members must take action to enroll in a FEDVIP plan. All beneficiaries eligible for TRDP are eligible for FEDVIP dental coverage. Visit the FEDVIP website for dental plan options.

    If you’re eligible, your first chance to enroll in FEDVIP is during the 2018 Federal Benefits Open Season. This runs from Nov. 12 through Dec. 10, 2018. Your coverage will then start Jan. 1, 2019.

    Retirees, retiree families, and active duty families are eligible for FEDVIP vision coverage. This year’s FEDVIP open season is also your first chance to enroll in a FEDVIP vision plan. If you enroll during open season, your coverage will start Jan. 1, 2019. Visit the FEDVIP website for vision plan options.

    Register to join us on Oct. 11 to learn more about the TRDP transition to FEDVIP and what the change means for you. A Q&A led by the presenters will follow the presentation.

    Keep updated on all of the TRICARE changes. For the latest on changes to TRICARE, visit TRICARE News and TRICARE Changes.


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  • Peer to Peer


    Across the country, Veterans are exploring their missions, aspirations, and purposes in life and are led by special people uniquely qualified to help– their peers. November 14, 2018 is Whole Health Peer Facilitator Day, where the unique skills of Peer Facilitators, who give their time and talents helping fellow Veterans take control of their health and well-being, are recognized.

    “Having done what I did in the Army, I find my voice, my example, my pitch, and my display really helps a lot of Veterans have confidence in what I’m saying – to get involved in the system,” says Jerry McClain, a former US Army Ranger and Whole Health Peer Facilitator at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

    Jerry has left the Army, but he has not stopped serving. He is a pastor, husband, father, grandfather, and a tireless supporter for his fellow Veterans. He became a Peer Facilitator to share the Whole Health benefits he experienced with other Veterans.

    Whole Health encourages Veterans to develop a Personal Health Plan, set goals based on what is important to them and work to achieve those goals in partnership with their health care teams. Many plans include well-being programs such as yoga, aquatic therapy, mindfulness meditation, acupuncture, or creative writing classes. The aim is to empower Veterans to take control of their care and equip them with what they need to reach their goals.

    When Jerry first learned about Whole Health over three years ago, he was looking for ways to manage pain resulting from a shattered right femur he suffered while in the service. The injury left him with hip, back, and knee pain and unable to walk or run as he had before. He found himself gaining weight, battling depression, and concerned about using too much medication to manage the pain. When he learned about VA’s Whole Health approach to care he was ready to “try anything they were willing to give” him. This is when he was introduced to mindfulness, a practice he found extremely beneficial in dealing with his issues.

    He likes the way Whole Health encourages Veterans to think about their health in a new way and consider what matters most to them. As people who have served, Veterans are accustomed to working on a mission. Whole Health encourages each person to look at how their health and well-being helps them achieve their life mission. As a Peer Facilitator, Jerry has seen Veterans practicing Whole Health move away from, or significantly reduce, the use of pain medication. “I’m one of them,” he says.

    He’s now leading Whole Health courses in his community at the American Legion in Pelham, Alabama. With more than 25 students in his first class, he says Whole Health makes him feel good about encouraging Veterans to come to the Birmingham VA Medical Center and gives him the opportunity share information about benefits and services other Veterans may not realize they are entitled to.

    The VA currently has more than 1,200 Whole Health Peer Facilitators nationwide, bringing this innovative approach to care to their fellow Veterans. Learn more about Whole Health and Whole Health Peer-Facilitator training and contact your local VA Medical Center to get involved.


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  • Shortage Vet Benefit Experts


    All this week on Stateside, we're looking at why more Michigan Veterans aren't getting the help they may be entitled to from the VA. The state has consistently ranked in the bottom five states and territories when it comes to helping Veterans and their families access federal VA benefits.

    Part of the problem is that the state doesn't have enough accredited Veteran service officers. These are the experts who help Vets navigate all the red tape in the VA's complex application process.

    Michael Smith is the director of the Washtenaw County Department of Veterans Affairs. He served a collective 21 years in the U.S. Army and is now an Accredited Veteran Service Officer. He joined Stateside to talk about the challenges that many Veterans face when navigating the application process for federal benefits.

    Nearly 600,000 Veterans live in Michigan. There are around 135 Veterans service officers at the county level, which Smith says is not nearly enough. He says that this shortage is part of the reason why Michigan ranks 48th in the nation when it comes to Veterans receiving federal benefits.

    "If a Veteran or a survivor or a dependent has nowhere to go to talk to someone who can advise them, and council them on benefits, and then assist them in the process of applying for those benefits, then they won't do it," Smith said.

    Listen above to hear Smith talk about what the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) could be doing to better support Veterans, and his advice for Veterans seeking help with determining their own potential VA benefits.


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  • Casket 001


    The results of a recent VA customer survey indicates Veterans and their families continue to experience high customer satisfaction in burial and memorial services for Veterans and families from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA). 98.2 percent of all respondents saying they were satisfied with their experience at the national cemetery. For Veterans not buried in a VA national cemetery, VA provides headstones, markers or medallions to commemorate their service. For more information, visit the National Cemetery Administration website.


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  • VA Report

    Jeff Sweeney and Galen Warman were not surprised by the findings. Any of them.

    Not by the first report issued by the Office of the Medical Inspector, or the second, or the third, released last week in an investigation into the Manchester VA Medical Center’s competency and procedures.

    “They’re notorious for covering things up,” said Sweeney, 40. “I am fed up for having to fight for everything and I’m fed up being in pain all the time, but I’m not surprised.”

    Their skepticism is easy to understand, since the Office of the Medical Inspector is the VA’s own investigative arm. That’s why they think the OMI essentially shouted, “Nothing to see here,” in its recent findings, when it ruled on a variety of issues, including suspected mistreatment, misdiagnosis and slow response times connected to Myelopathy, a compression of the spinal cord.

    Sweeney and Warman both live in Concord, were both injured while serving their country and both sought medical help for their severe back and neck pain. They’ve moved on, started new lives, learned to live with their pain, and the ongoing process of an organization investigating itself has dulled their senses.

    “It falls in line with what they’ve been trying to do,” Warman told me. “I expected this all along, so no one is plowing new ground.”

    Indeed, this is old ground. Warman suffered back and neck injuries in a construction accident 30 years ago and a car wreck in 2007. Sweeney’s truck was hit by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2011.

    They both have since gotten some relief through surgery, but years had passed before they received the proper care, and they still have plenty of aches and pains.

    That’s why the whistleblowers we’ve been hearing about since the summer of 2017, the ones with those medical and nursing degrees – the ones who documented incompetency and delays in treatment and immoral record keeping and a poor monitoring system on degenerative spinal conditions – won’t let this go.

    In fact, they remain fighting mad, complaining about the conflict of interest they’ve seen as part of the VA’s investigation and the lack of accountability since the story exploded in the Boston Globe.

    “It’s what they do, like a damage control system,” said whistleblower Dr. Ed Kois, head of the spinal cord clinic at the Manchester VA. “They say they’re going to investigate, bring in the OMI knowing they’ll do a lengthy investigation and then wash their hands.”

    The Office of Special Counsel, an independent entity that oversees the OMI, isn’t buying it. In a prepared statement emailed to me, the OSC’s special counsel, Henry Kerner, wrote that “clear discrepancies undermine the assertion that VA leadership was open to concerns and worked to ensure Veterans receive timely care.”

    Those words were golden to Kois and Stewart Levenson, the Manchester VA’s former Medicine Department chairman, who were the loudest whistleblowers among the 12 staff members who came forward.

    They want you to know they are not doctors with axes to grind, nor are they trying to further their careers, working as self-promoters, promised by an outside government entity to expose trouble at the VA.

    Kois says he hasn’t been promised a better parking spot, and Levenson insists he did not come aboard to boost his chances of winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Kois’s parking spot remains unchanged, and he’s still courting the press, trying to make as much noise as possible. And Levenson did not win in the primary election, yet he’s writing op-eds and calling columnists back so these problems don’t fade from view.

    “All these investigative bodies descended on Manchester and you would think more would have been done,” Levenson said by phone. “But how can you investigate yourself? It was garbage. You can’t explain it away.”

    Added Dr. Ted Daly, another reputable whistleblower: “I’m flabbergasted by their conclusions.”

    Levenson, Kois and the others cited dirty surgical instruments, flies in the operating room and mismanagement up top, but it was the mistakes made on patients with compressed spinal cord problems that were the most alarming and damaging.

    Kois called it a “perfect storm” of factors. The Manchester VA had no neurosurgeons, forcing patients to the Boston VA in West Roxbury, which was overworked and not able to give the proper care.

    Record keeping between Boston and Manchester failed to clearly show who needed surgery, and a doctor named Muhammad Huq, the former head of the spinal cord clinic at the Manchester VA, was found to be cutting and pasting notes in medical charts, meaning information remained unchanged for years.

    Some whistleblowers and staff felt that upper management was more concerned with ratings and budgets than actual care, which led to the ouster of top officials once the story broke.

    Caught in this perfect storm were nearly 100 patients with spinal cord problems, many of whom were never properly treated. Some ended up in wheelchairs, others were forced to use canes, and still others simply had to endure pain needlessly for years, for a condition that one doctor said often goes untreated in third-world countries like Nigeria.

    But certainly not here in the U.S.

    Try telling that to Warman, 67, an Army Veteran who later served in the Air National Guard. His back pain went undiagnosed for years at the Manchester VA, leading to an endless supply of painkillers and a drastic change in lifestyle.

    “They were not forthcoming on how to treat it,” Warman told me. “It was like, ‘Take two of these in the morning and have a nice day.’ I was addicted to painkillers.

    “I tried to have some kind of life and I kept asking for help and getting none,” Warman continued. “They said they were not responsible.”

    Kois, new to the facility, first examined Warman in 2015. His response after viewing an MRI was “Holy s---.”

    “It showed he had severe narrowing of the spinal canal,” Kois said. “I sent him for further evaluation and he had surgery and I saw him again and he was doing great.”

    Pain remains, but Warman is strong enough to work at Cumberland Farms and deliver newspapers.

    And then there’s Sweeney. After midnight, riding in the lead truck in a convoy of at least 30 vehicles, he heard a bang, saw a flash and, after running for cover and the adrenaline rush had worn off, awoke with his back “killing me.”

    The Manchester VA sent him for physical therapy, which did nothing. Neither did steroids. Surgery was performed in Boston, but Sweeney awoke in even more pain.

    He was told during subsequent checkups that the pain was a normal part of the recovery process, but the pain grew worse and he later was let go from his job with the Department of Transportation for missing eight months.

    Sweeney said the VA eventually stopped taking his calls. He contemplated suicide. He drank a lot of beer. Then he went to see Kois, who took a CAT scan and told Sweeney, “I want you in my office, now.”

    Sweeney pulled out his phone and showed me what Kois had shown him: a picture of his spine, with a screw inserted into bone, which was fine, and another screw penetrating a nerve, which was not.

    “Permanent nerve damage caused by the VA,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t put that screw in there myself.”

    But following 14-hour surgery to remove the misplaced screw at New England Baptist Hospital, Sweeney’s life changed.

    “I was shocked that I was walking,” Sweeney said. “I went for a walk with the nurse and I felt good walking around. I’ll have contact with Dr. Kois for the rest of my life, if I can. Dr. Kois saved my life.”

    There’s still pain, though. Sweeney has been taking steroid injections since January. He installs natural gas lines and hopes surgery in the future will return him to some sense of normalcy.

    And, soon, his story and that of five others from across the country will be told in a documentary called, The Care They’ve Earned, an unflinching look at flaws and holes in the VA system.

    Advanced screenings have been shown in selective theaters this summer. Sweeney didn’t know the film’s release date around here, and its producer, Justin Springer, was unavailable for comment.

    Sweeney showed me a trailer on his phone, which included that CAT scan, the one that clearly showed those two screws in his back.

    “I hope people see it,” Sweeney told me. “I lived it and it was still an eye-opener for me.”


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  • GI Bill transfer


    Earlier this year, the Pentagon changed the rules for troops who want to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their dependents.

    Most notably, the new policy will end transfers for service members who have been in uniform longer than 16 years, starting in July 2019. It also immediately put an end to previous exceptions that have allowed certain service members with more than 10 years in uniform to transfer the benefit without committing to serve four more years, including those who were unable to continue serving because of mandatory retirement or high-year tenure.

    Defense Department officials have said the changes are “to more closely align the transferability benefit with its purpose as a recruiting and retention incentive."

    “With these updates, the department addresses the intent of Congress and ensures the benefit is available for future service members,” DoD spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell in an email. She said the policy change will impact about 9 percent of active-duty service members, National Guardsmen and reservists.

    The changes have been hotly contested by lawmakers and Veteran advocates, and after pushback, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced in September that none of the changes would apply to wounded warriors. Active-duty troops who have earned a Purple Heart for wounds in combat are now allowed to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their family members whenever they want.

    But more recently, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has introduced legislation that would scrap the DoD’s recent changes all together and open GI Bill transfer to Veterans who did not have dependents while on active duty.

    Meanwhile, long-serving troops who want to transfer their GI Bill benefits to a spouse or child should plan on doing so before the July deadline kicks in.

    “We understand that it will take some time for service members and their families to decide on transferring benefits, so by giving them a one-year window, we believe it will give them ample time to gather information and make decisions,” Maxwell said.


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  • GI Bill Benefits


    The Department of Defense (DoD) has granted a temporary exception to policy to allow select service members to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to dependents until July 12, 2019.

    NAVADMIN 020/19, released Jan. 24, 2019, announces that for a limited time, sailors with at least 10 years of service who are unable to serve four additional years, due to statute or standard policy, may transfer their education benefits to dependents if they agree to serve the maximum time authorized. For example, enlisted sailors within four years of high year tenure or officers within four years of their statutory limit of service are eligible.

    The policy exception is retroactive to July 12, 2018, and ends July 11, 2019, after which sailors will need to commit to the full four years of service to transfer their benefits.

    Sailors with at least 10 years of service whose transfer of education benefits applications were rejected due to the policy changes announced in NAVADMIN 170/18, and who are still serving on active duty or in the selected reserve (SELRES), must reapply for transfer of education benefits by following guidance in NAVADMIN 236/18, including completion of the new statement of understanding at


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  • Donald Trump 001


    President Trump to issue executive order requesting mental health coverage for a 12 month period for all service members as they leave the military, administration officials say in briefing.

    • Evidence 002


      One of the major aspects of developing a disability claim with the VA is gathering and submitting relevant evidence to help support it. The VA has what is called a duty to assist, however, it can be extremely beneficial to also gather your own evidence during the claims process. By submitting various forms of evidence, you provide the VA with more information and different angles for them to view your case. The type of evidence you should consider submitting will depend greatly on the disabilities that you are experiencing and at what step of the process you are at.

      Types of Evidence

      Service Records/Service Medical Records

      When trying to initially get your claim service connected, you have to show an in-service event that led to your disability. The easiest way to prove this in-service event is with your service records and medical records, if the event is documented. Whether it is a physical injury, or a mental one, having it documented in your service records can be a huge stress reliever when it comes to managing your VA claim. If the in-service event is not documented in your service record, don’t give up on your claim! There are other pieces of evidence that can be used to help prove your claim.

      Service records can also be beneficial when you need to prove you were in a certain location during a specific time period. For example, for the VA’s presumptive illnesses, you may need to show that you were in Vietnam or Thailand between 1962 and 1975, or that you were stationed at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987, or even possibly that you served in the Southwest Asia Theater during the Gulf War. Your service record should contain any documents that show what units you were assigned to and the location of each. These documents can include, but are not limited to, orders, travel vouchers, re-enlistment paperwork, and awards.

      Expert Medical Opinions

      Medical opinions can be useful, whether you are trying to show service connection for a disability, or if you are requesting an increased rating. Medical opinions allow for an outside doctor to review your claims file and meet with you to discuss your disabilities, symptoms, and the limitations you suffer because of it. They can provide the VA with a detailed medical account to show diagnosis and severity.

      Employment Information

      When filing for increased compensation based on unemployability, it is required to disclose your employers of the last five years that you actually worked. By giving the VA the employer’s name and address, it allows them to send the employer a form to verify when you worked there, your total income earned, the type of work you did, and anytime you lost due to illnesses. Basically, they are verifying all of the information that you included on the form 21-8940, but they want to hear it from the employer. You can expedite this step by sending your previous employers a form 21-4192 when you first file for individual unemployability.

      Buddy Statements

      Buddy statements can be helpful at any point in your process with the VA. If you are trying to get service connected or receive a higher rating, a buddy statement can prove to be your best piece of evidence. Generally, buddy statements will come from close family members or friends who have witnessed your disabilities and the change they have caused in your life. Buddy statements can also come from fellow service members, and can be beneficial if you are trying to prove a specific location or an event in service. They can help to corroborate the facts to the VA and provide an additional outlook on your situation.

      Deck Logs

      Deck logs can be vital to a Navy Veteran’s claim, especially when they need to show that they were part of the Brown Water Navy, serving within the inland waterways of Vietnam. For these Veterans, the deck logs for their ship during the time they were deployed to Vietnam can be requested and used to show on what days their ship was inland and what specific bay or waterway they were in. Deck logs can also be used to help prove a stressor that may have occurred on board on the ship. For example, if there was an active shooter on the ship and a Veteran developed PTSD and is now trying to get it service connected, the deck logs can be used to prove the incident occurred and provide the details of the situation.

      Dependent Benefits

      If you are trying to obtain additional compensation for your dependents, there is also evidence required for these benefits to be granted. When you file for dependents with the VA, you must complete a form 21-686c. With this form, you list any current and prior marriages, as well any prior marriages of your spouse. You also list any children who may qualify for benefits. To prove you have a spouse, you may be required to submit your marriage certificate and any prior divorce decrees. To claim children, you may be required to submit their birth certificate, so it is helpful to know where these documents are and have them ready to avoid further delay with the VA.


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    • Hill and Ponton Logo



      RAMP (Rapid Appeals Modernization Program) is the VA’s pilot program for the new appeals system created by the VA Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017. RAMP is an optional program, available to Veterans with claims that are currently on appeal. If a Veteran does not want to opt into the RAMP program, they do not have to submit anything to the VA; their appeals will continue to be processed in the current appeals system now referred to as the Legacy Appeals System.

      Information onRAMP Rating Decisions

      Now that the RAMP program has been in effect for several months, Veterans who opted in are receiving rating decisions. It is important to understand the information included in these decisions, and also what your options are if you are not happy with the decision.

      The appearance of rating decisions hasn’t changed much with the RAMP program. However, the information that must be included in the rating decision has changed slightly. RAMP rating decisions must list all favorable findings that the VA identified when reviewing the case, including listing what evidence was considered as favorable. The VA must also identify the evidence they considered to be unfavorable. In the narrative part of the rating decision, the VA must explain how the favorable and unfavorable evidence was weighed in coming to their ultimate finding. In addition to listing the evidence, the VA also has to include a list of all regulations and laws that were applied in making their decision.

      Forms Included inRAMP Rating Decisions

      In addition to the explanation and the list of evidence and regulations, RAMP decisions will have two forms attached. These two forms are the RAMP Review Rights form and the RAMP Selection form.

      The RAMP Review Rights form gives information about how to appeal the decision. The different ways to appeal a decision from RAMP are based on the different lanes that make up the RAMP program. The appeal options include:

      • Supplemental Claim: If you are unhappy with the rating decision and would like to submit new evidence, this is the appeal option to select. Once the new evidence (must be new and relevant) is submitted, a different rater will review the case.
      • Higher Level Review: This appeal option can only be selected if the decision being appealed was issued out of the supplemental claim lane, and you do not have any additional evidence to submit. (Note: if opting into RAMP, the only requirement is that no additional evidence can be submitted.) A higher-level VA employee will review the decision that is being appealed based on the evidence of record.
      • Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA): If you are unhappy with the rating decision and want to take your appeal straight to the BVA, use this appeal option (Note: the BVA will not begin deciding RAMP appeals until October 2018). If you choose to appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, you will have to select one of three options. These options are:
      • Direct Docket: Select this if you have no additional evidence to submit, and you do not want a hearing. The BVA will issue their decision based on the evidence of record.
      • Evidence Only Docket: Select this if you would like to submit additional evidence, but do not want a hearing. After submitting your appeal, you will have 90 days to submit additional evidence.
      • Hearing Docket: Select this if you would like to have a hearing with a Veterans Law Judge. You will also be able to submit additional evidence up to 90 days after submitting your appeal.

      The second form that will be attached to a RAMP rating decision is the RAMP Selection form. After deciding which appeal option is best for you, fill out the RAMP Selection form. This form requires you to specify which issues you are appealing, and which appeal option you are choosing.


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    • TRICARE Logo


      If you’re eligible for TRICARE, you can choose from a variety of plans. This gives you options for where and how you seek medical care. But how do you decide which plan or plans are best for you and your family members? The TRICARE website can help you learn what health plans you may be eligible for and compare plan features and costs. This will help you choose the right TRICARE plan for you and your family.

      Find a TRICARE Plan

      If you aren’t sure what health plans you may be eligible for, start by using the TRICARE Plan Finder. Answer a few simple questions, and the tool will display the choices of plans you may be eligible for based on who you are and where you live. You can do this for yourself or for family members. Remember that different family members may be eligible for different plans.

      Compare Plans

      If you want to compare several health plans, you can compare their features side-by-side using the Compare Plans tool. Simply select the plans you’re interested in learning more about. The results will display in a table, allowing you to compare the main features and costs of each plan, including:

      • Cost for a primary or specialty care visit
      • Annual deductible
      • Maximum out-of-pocket costs
      • Enrollment requirements
      • Annual fee
      • Locations where the plan is available

      Take command of your health by making informed decisions about your TRICARE benefit. The TRICARE Plan Finder and Compare Plans are just two helpful tools that make it easier to determine the right health plan for you and your family.


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    • DVA Logo 019


      Today the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced a series of immediate actions to improve the timeliness of payments to community providers.

    • Pension and DIC Rules


      The VA has made changes to regulations governing VA pension and Parents’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, which are need-based programs.  

      According to the VA, these changes will ensure that only those with a genuine need receive these benefits.

      There were four major changes to the qualifications for these benefits:

      1. Establishment of a clear net-worth limit for income and assets
      2. Establishment of a 36-month look-back period to review asset transfers at less than fair market value that may reduce net worth
      3. Establishment of up to a five-year penalty period to be calculated based on the portion of the covered assets that would have made net worth excessive, and
      4. Updates to medical expense definitions for consistency with VA internal guidelines.

      Establishment Of A Clear Net-Worth Limit

      Previously, the VA used a complicated formula to compute net worth. The new regulations create an arbitrary amount. VA says this will make computation easier, faster, and fairer.

      Under the new regulations, the net worth limit for 2019 is $123,600. This limit will be increased by the same percentage as the annual social security COLA increase, if there is one. A primary residence does not count as part of net worth, also a mortgage does not count as a liability.

      Establishment Of A 36-Month Look-Back Period

      This rule should keep people from hiding money in order to qualify for benefits. Some bad actors would sell stocks or other assets at a loss in order to qualify for pension benefits, others would "gift" money to a friend or family member in order to bring their net worth down to the qualifying limits.

      The new rule requires VA to look at an applicant's finances for the 36 months prior to the application for pension to determine if there are any financial irregularities.

      Establishment Of Up To A Five-Year Penalty Period

      This rule is related to the 36-month look-back period.

      If an applicant transfers money to a non-qualified source as determined above, the VA will withhold the pension based on the amount of money transferred. So, if an applicant transferred $12,000 to an uncle in order to qualify for pension and their monthly pension amount is $2,000, the VA will withhold 6 months of pension ($2,000 x 6=$12,000). This new rule allows the VA to withhold pension for up to 5 years in such cases.

      Updates To Medical Expense Definitions

      Medical costs have long been used in computing net-worth for pension benefits, however there has been much argument as to what really constitutes a "medical cost".

      Previously, the VA didn't include some medical care such as custodial care, assistance with getting around in one's home, and in-home supervision. While this type of care isn't "medical" by definition, it is related to an underlying medical condition, therefore the VA has added it as a cost.

      These new rules add these and other types of types of care as qualifying expenses.

      Veteran's Pension

      Veteran's pension is a monthly payment to certain Veterans with income below levels. The Veteran must have served at least one day during a wartime period and be:

      • 65 years or older, or
      • permanently and totally disabled, or
      • in a nursing home, or
      • receiving social security disability, or
      • receiving supplemental security income

      See our Veterans Pension page for more details.

      Survivor's Pension

      Survivor's pension, also known as the "death pension", is paid monthly payment to low-income, un-remarried surviving spouses and certain children of deceased wartime Veterans.

      See our Survivor's Pension page for more details.

      Parents’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)

      Parents' DIC is a tax-free income-based monthly benefit for the parents, or parent, of a military service member or Veteran who has died from:

      • A disease or injury incurred or aggravated while on active duty or active duty for training, OR
      • An injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty while on inactive duty for training, OR
      • A service-connected disability.

      “The amended regulations bring consistency to the pension process and ensure benefits are available for Veterans and survivors with financial need,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “They will help maintain the integrity of and provide clarity to our needs-based pension program.”


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    • Benefits Appeals


      WASHINGTON — Veterans rejected for disability benefits will have a new slate of appeals options starting next month, when federal officials will put in place an overhaul the review process with hopes of dramatically cutting down on wait times for the complicated cases.

      Last week, Department of Veterans Affairs officials announced they will implement new appeals modernization rules starting Feb. 19. Work on the effort has been underway for more than 18 months, since lawmakers passed sweeping reform legislation on the topic in August 2017.

      Under the new rules, Veterans will be given three options for their benefits appeals. All three are designed to streamline the complicated existing process for cases, which can languish for years as new evidence and arguments are introduced throughout the timeline.

      Now, VA leaders are hoping the most difficult reviews can still be completed in under a year in the vast majority of cases. Their target for cases which don’t go before the Board of Veterans Appeals is an average of about four months for a final decision.

      A successful appeal can mean potentially thousands of dollars in monthly benefits payouts for Veterans who have previously been turned down for what they believe are service-connected injuries and illnesses. VA and Capitol Hill leaders hailed the changes as a long-overdue fix.

      “(This) is the most significant reform in Veterans’ appeals processing in a generation and promises to improve the timeliness and accuracy of decisions for our nation's Veterans,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.

      He promised close oversight of the work ahead, but also hope about the potential rewards for Veterans.

      Committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., last week visited a regional office in his home state that will be involved in the new appeals process and left feeling confident in its success.

      “The VA staff feel really good about this,” he said. “They’re worked out the hiccups they’ve had, and are ready to move ahead. Getting all the training and experience is going to take time, but I walked away optimistic.”

      Veterans groups largely supported the appeals overhaul, although a few groups have expressed concerns about the new system limiting Veterans options for future reviews in favor of getting faster answers.

      Under the first of the three new appeals processes, Veterans can file a supplemental claim where they introduce new evidence backing their case. The appeal is handled by specialists at a regional office, who render a final decision on it.

      In the second option, Veterans can request their case be reviewed by a senior claims adjudicator instead of the regional office. Those experts will review cases for clear errors or mistaken interpretations of statute. If they find mistakes, they can mandate corrections for the cases.

      Finally, Veterans will also be able to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Those cases are expected to take the longest to process, because of the legal prep work involved. Veterans can get a direct decision or request a hearing before the board.

      Portions of the new process have been implemented as pilot programs at select sites in recent months. Previously, cases involved a combination of all three options, with cases reset and repeating steps with every new submission of case evidence.

      Veterans with cases currently pending in the system can opt-into the revamped processes starting next month, or remain in the current system if they believe it will better benefit them.

      More information on the changes is available through the Veterans Affairs benefits website.


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    • Rapid Appeals Modernization Program


      Today, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced it will discontinue the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP), which provided eligible Veterans with early resolutions to their appealed claims, ahead of full implementation of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 that takes effect Feb. 19, 2019.

      VA will not accept RAMP elections from Veterans with a legacy appeal after Feb. 15, 2019; however, RAMP claims pending on or after Feb. 15 will continue to be processed until the inventory is complete.

      Beginning Feb. 19, Veterans who appeal a VA decision will have three decision review choices: Higher-Level Review, Supplemental Claim, and appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. VA will now offer Veterans greater choice in how VA reviews their claim is committed to ensuring the claims process is accurate, timely and fair.

      “VA has been preparing for full implementation of the Appeals Modernization Act over the past 18 months to ensure the new, streamlined process is available to Veterans who have long sought reform of the broken legacy system,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “We encourage Veterans whose appeal is currently in the legacy system to opt in to RAMP before February 15 to take full advantage of the benefits of the new process.”

      VA initiated RAMP in November 2017 to provide some of the benefits of the new law’s streamlined process before full implementation. Participation in RAMP is voluntary. However, processing times under the program have been faster than legacy appeal processing times. Under the legacy process, decisions currently average three to seven years. Veterans who have a legacy appeal after Feb. 15 will be able to opt in to the process when they receive a Statement of the Case or a Supplemental Statement of the Case after the new law is effective Feb. 19.

      Veterans who participate in RAMP can choose to have their VA decision reviewed in either the Supplemental Claim or Higher-Level Review lanes. In the Higher-Level Review lanes, a more experienced adjudicator will conduct a new look at the previous decision based on the evidence considered in the previous decision. Participants who select the Supplemental Claim option may submit new and relevant evidence, and VA will assist in developing new evidence under its duty to assist. VA’s goal is to complete Supplemental Claims and Higher-Level Reviews in an average of 125 days.

      For more information on Appeals Modernization, visit and


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    • Siphoning Off


      FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, Ill. ( - A Fairview Heights military Veteran told News 4 her VA benefits were siphoned out of her account and she believes the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing little to stop it.

      Shanaye Rogers-Sanke said she went to the ATM on Saturday only to find her account had insufficient funds. She said she got home and checked her e-benefits account.

      “At that point I really noticed there was a problem because I was locked out of my account,” she said.

      Rogers-Sanke receives a monthly disability check from her service in the Marines, something her family depends on.

      “We’ve been receiving that benefit for 18 years to that very same account,” said Rogers-Sanke.

      When she finally got a hold of someone from the VA, she said she was told her check had been re-routed to a different bank account.

      A letter arrived Tuesday, days after her money was stolen. The letter stated the VA processed the January 20 request to change her direct deposit, and it has a 1-800 number to call if she didn’t authorize the change.

      “They just changed it, they didn’t wait for a response from me,” she said.

      The VA sent News 4 the following statement:

      "The ebenefits program has not been hacked. However, we have learned of individual accounts that have been fraudulently accessed."

      Rogers-Sanke said she thinks what happened to her is not an isolated incident, stating she has read about similar incidents happening to other Veterans.

      An almost exact situation happened to a Veteran in Colorado Springs and another in Kentucky. Right now, police in West Plains, Missouri are investigating a Veteran’s check being re-routed.

      The VA said they take fraud seriously, adding that in the last three years, less than 0.1 percent of ebenefits accounts have been hacked. When it does happen, the VA told News 4 it works to correct the situation quickly.


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    • VA Wont Pay


      The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) told congressional staffers on Wednesday that it will not repay Veterans who received smaller GI Bill benefit payments than they were owed, NBC News reported.

      Committee aides told the outlet that the VA said it could not reimburse those Veterans without auditing past education claims, which, they said, would hold up future claims.

      The report comes weeks after computer problems delayed GI Bill payments to hundreds of thousands of Veterans.

      The issue first came under scrutiny after GI Bill payments were delayed due to a change in calculating housing allowances under the Forever GI Bill, which President Trump signed into law last year. According to NBC News, the department's computers were unable to process the change, quickly leading to an immense backlog of Veterans' claims.

      The issues ultimately resulted in Robert Worley, executive director of the VA's education service, being reassigned earlier this month.

      Because of the backlog, the department announced Wednesday that it would delay the bill’s housing allowance changes until next year, also pledging that Veterans who received incorrect GI Bill benefit payments would eventually be paid the correct amount.

      Committee aides, however, said VA officials told Capitol Hill staffers on Wednesday that the department will not retroactively reimburse underpaid Veterans due to the housing miscalculations once the system is fixed next year, according to NBC News.

      "They are essentially going to ignore the law and say that that change only goes forward from Dec. 2019," one aide told the outlet.

      Pressed for comment by NBC, VA spokesman Curtis Cashour said that attempting to implement the new law would put “an enormous administrative burden for schools in which some 35,000 certifying officials would have to track retroactively and re-certify hundreds of thousands of enrollment documents.”

      He added that the department would instead be paying housing allowances in accordance with the Department of Defense's previous Basic Housing Allowance rates until next year.

      Cashour pushed back in a statement to The Hill on Thursday, claiming “the NBC report is misleading and gives the false impression that some Veterans on the GI Bill will not be made whole with respect to their housing payments."

      “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he continued. “Each and every Veteran on the post-9/11 GI Bill will be made 100 percent whole — retroactively if need be — for their housing benefits for this academic year based on the current uncapped DoD rates, and, beginning in spring 2020, we [will] be in a position to provide Veterans the new rates where applicable to meet the law known as the Forever GI Bill.”

      Cashour further clarified to The Hill that “every single Veteran will be made whole for their housing benefits this year”

      “For many students, this DoD BAH [Pentagon Basic Allowance for Housing] rate will be equal to or higher than their current payment,” Cashour continued. “If a student was overpaid due to the change in law or because of VBA’s challenges in implementing the law, the student will not be held liable for the debt.”

      Cashour added that the VA in spring 2020 “will have solved its current information technology difficulties" to comply with the Forever GI Bill changes.


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    • GI Bill Benefits 001


      "This is — to be kind — a train wreck,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

      Shelley Roundtree departed the U.S. Army in 2013 after seeing friends and fellow soldiers die in combat during his tour in Afghanistan. He was committed to transitioning to civilian life, and one of his first steps was to enroll in college with tuition and housing benefits he'd earned under the GI Bill.

      Roundtree, 29, began studying marketing at Berkeley College in Midtown Manhattan. He dreams of working in the fashion industry, and he's close to graduating — but now there's a serious obstacle.

      The Department of Veterans Affairs is suffering from a series of information technology glitches that has caused GI Bill benefit payments covering education and housing to be delayed or — in the case of Roundtree — never be delivered.

      "I’m about to lose everything that I own and become homeless," Roundtree said. "I don’t want to be that Veteran on the street begging for change because I haven’t received what I was promised."

      Without the GI Bill's housing stipend, Roundtree was kicked out of his apartment and is now living on his sister's couch, miles from school, where he feels like a burden on his family. The new living situation required him to move all his belongings into a storage container, which he can no longer afford. Now all of his possessions are in danger of being auctioned off by the storage facility.

      Roundtree said that because of his extremely strained finances, he is forced to choose between spending money on public transportation to get to his marketing classes or buying food — not both. At the end of the day, the Veteran said he often makes himself go to sleep hungry.

      "It’s just confusing," said Roundtree. "Who is there for us? Who is representing us? Who is helping us? Who is doing what they need to do to better the situation for Veterans?"

      There are many Veterans, like Roundtree, across the country who are still waiting for VA to catch up with a backlog created after President Donald Trump signed the Forever GI Bill in 2017. The landmark piece of legislation greatly expanded benefits for Veterans and their families, but it did not upgrade the VA's technical capabilities to account for those changes.

      While it is unclear how many GI Bill recipients were affected by the delays, as of Nov. 8, more than 82,000 were still waiting for their housing payments with only weeks remaining in the school semester, according to the VA. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have been affected.

      The cause of the difficulty lies within VA’s Office of Information Technology, which was tasked with implementing a change in how the housing allowance was calculated, the agency said. The Forever GI Bill required that housing would be based on the ZIP code of where a Veteran went to school, not where he or she lived.

      Issues that arose when VA attempted to stress-test their antiquated system, and a contract dispute over the new changes, meant VA waited until July 16 to tell schools to begin enrolling students, according to Veteran advocacy groups. Many colleges and universities waited, however, because the VA told them that they would need to re-enter their student Veterans' certifying information either way.

      “That’s when the floodgates opened,” said Patrick Murray, the deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “With all the delays trying to get the upgrades in the ZIP code processing, they suddenly got all their enrollments, which usually come during the spring across the summer. Instead they all came a few weeks before the fall semester, and they couldn’t keep up.”

      A VA spokesperson told NBC News by email that "further system changes and modifications are being made and testing is ongoing on the IT solution" to fix the delay in monthly stipend payments.

      "These changes have led to processing issues," a VA spokesperson wrote, referring to the GI Bill changes, "and VA is committed to providing a solution that is reliable, efficient and effective."

      At the end of August, Veterans Benefits Administration had nearly 239,000 pending claims — 100,000 more than at the same point in 2017. As school began, thousands of students faced dire circumstances and some faced eviction, getting kicked out of school or taking on loan or credit card debt.

      As the problem appears to have no clear solution, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is holding a hearing Wednesday to investigate the matter.

      The contractor hired by the VA to update its system for the Forever GI Bill, Booz Allen Hamilton, a multibillion-dollar information technology company, will be called to testify, a committee aide said. They will be joined by Under Secretary for Benefits Dr. Paul Lawrence and Director of the Education Service Robert Worley. A witness from the VA’s Office of Information and Technology will also be called.

      "This is — to be kind — a train wreck,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Veterans' affairs committee. “It’s really frustrating the amount of money that Congress has appropriated for Veterans, and this is the way VA has rolled it out. This discussion started over a year ago.”

      Roe’s office recently visited the VA’s regional processing office in Muskogee, Oklahoma, along with Democratic and Senate Committee staffers and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

      In a Nov. 5 letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, Roe said that employees at the processing center told the group that IT systems at the office froze and crashed so often that tasks that once took five minutes now required 45 minutes. Computers often suffered a “blue screen of death,” which required restarting machines, and “managers had to write off 16,890 man hours due to system crashes or latency issues.”

      “While Committee staff never witnessed a ‘blue screen of death,’” the letter said, “they did witness the system crash no fewer than five times in a 10 minute period.”

      The VA declined to share how much the IT system failures, overtime payments and the 202 additional workers hired to address these problems have cost taxpayers.

      As some Veteran advocates point out, this is not an issue that came as a surprise.

      At the July 17, 2017, hearing in the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs — before the bill was passed into law — Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity Curtis Coy highlighted this as his core worry in response to one of the few questions asked during the hearing.

      “My biggest concern is two words: IT,” said Coy at the time. “We have an IT system in much or almost all of these sections that requires some degree of changes.”

      After Coy retired this year, the VA cut his position and the Office of Economic Opportunity. Multiple Veteran Service Organizations said the loss of this role, as well as the office, meant that there was no one left at the VA to communicate the issues to Veterans or to lobby higher-ups about the GI Bill issues.

      That’s not to mention the huge number of posts that remain unfilled at the agency. More than 45,000 jobs sit vacant at the VA, according to the agency’s own numbers, and it has not had a permanent chief information officer since LaVerne Council departed the office after Trump’s election.

      "Right now Secretary Wilkie and Dr. Lawrence have only been on the jobs for months,” Murray said. “People have been coming in and out of the VA like it’s a revolving door, and this is another example where a lack of consistent leadership causes these problems.”

      But Veterans like Roundtree are less concerned about the leadership at the VA — they just want to know if they can depend on the money they earned under the GI Bill.

      And advocates are similarly concerned as it remains unclear if the VA will be able to catch up before January, or if it will be inundated with new requests next year and fall even further behind.

      “I don’t see that there is an immediate fix, and I don’t see how this is going to be addressed in the spring or summer semesters,” said Tanya Ang, the policy and outreach director of Veterans Education Success. “This needs to be something that has a greater focus on it for a lot longer."


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    • DVA Logo 005


      Supplemental Income for Wartime Veterans

      VA helps Veterans and their families cope with financial challenges by providing supplemental income through the Veterans Pension benefit. Veterans Pension is a tax-free monetary benefit payable to low-income wartime Veterans.


      Generally, a Veteran must have at least 90 days of active duty service, with at least one day during a wartime period to qualify for a VA Pension. If you entered active duty after September 7, 1980, generally you must have served at least 24 months or the full period for which you were called or ordered to active duty (with some exceptions), with at least one day during a wartime period.

      In addition to meeting minimum service requirements, the Veteran must be:

      • Age 65 or older, OR
      • Totally and permanently disabled, OR
      • A patient in a nursing home receiving skilled nursing care, OR
      • Receiving Social Security Disability Insurance, OR
      • Receiving Supplemental Security Income

      Your yearly family income must be less than the amount set by Congress to qualify for the Veterans Pension benefit. Learn more about income and net worth limitation, and see an example of how VA calculates the VA Pension benefit.

      Additional Pension Allowances

      Veterans or surviving spouses who are eligible for VA pension and are housebound or require the aid and attendance of another person may be eligible for an additional monetary payment.

      How To Apply

      You can apply for Veterans Pension online or download and complete VA Form 21P-527EZ, “Application for Pension”. You can mail your application to the Pension Management Center (PMC) that serves your state. You may also visit your local regional benefit office and turn in your application for processing. You can locate your local regional benefit office using the VA Facility Locator

      To apply for increased pension based on A&A or Housebound payments, write to the PMC that serves your state and provide medical evidence, such as a doctor’s report, that validates the need for an increased benefit.


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    • Sailors Want Benefits


      Some Vietnam Veterans are living in fear, others dying without benefits they say they deserve, after the government revoked medical care for thousands of Veterans who say they were exposed to a more toxic version of the defoliant Agent Orange.

      Veterans Affairs argues the decision was based on a lack of scientific evidence linking some Veterans to Agent Orange.

      But WRAL found that the reason there's little scientific evidence is the government failed to test off-shore sailors during and after the war.

      Mike Bornes volunteered to serve his country during the Vietnam War, a conflict that included the defoliant linked to numerous long-term illnesses.

      “I’m true blue USA all the way,” Bornes said.

      But now, 50 years removed from his tour of duty, the 71-year-old former Navy Yeoman from Holly Springs said he feels his country betrayed him.

      “I'm tired of having a dollar sign put on my life,” he said. “It's wrong.”

      Bornes is among the thousands of so-called Blue Water Sailors who worked on supply and ammunition ships off the coast of Vietnam.

      Those sailors don't qualify for medical benefits afforded to troops on the ground.

      “It's wrong,” Bornes said. “It's unethical. It's unfair.”

      The VA did treat them for exposure to Agent Orange for years but ended those benefits in 2002.

      “They know we've been exposed,” Bornes said. “They just don't want to do it because they say they don't have the money.”

      The frontline of the battle for benefits is now in Washington, D.C., where the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the VA to restore benefits. The bill is now stalled in the Senate.

      “Vietnam Veterans generally believe the policy of the VA when it comes to any kind of toxic exposure, especially Agent Orange, is delay, deny and wait for us to die,” said Rick Weidman, of Vietnam Veterans of America.

      The point of contention is whether the troops on ships were exposed to Agent Orange.

      Unlike ground troops, they weren't tested at the time.

      Without those tests, the VA argues there's no proof the Veterans are suffering from exposure to Agent Orange.

      “We want to find ways to pay benefits, but historically, we have to say no to some folks when there's not a rational basis or the evidence is not there,” said Beth Murphy, VA compensation service director.

      The VA has pointed to one study by the Institute of Medicine in which researchers "could not find enough data to determine whether or not Blue Water Navy personnel were exposed."

      What the VA usually doesn't cite in the same research is the claim, “Given the lack of measurements taken during the war and the almost 40 years since the war, this will never be a matter of science but instead a matter of policy.”

      “It's preposterous,” Weidman said. “It's not scientific evidence; it is simply wanting to say no.”

      Bornes said priorities seemed unfair.

      “They always find money to send you to war, but they never find money to treat you when you come back,” Bornes said.

      He argues the ships spent months just off the Vietnam coast using treated ocean water for everyday life.

      Australian researchers found the on-board filtration process didn't remove the harmful chemicals from the water. Instead, it intensified them.

      “Everything you did with water, you did with that contaminated water,” Bornes said.

      Another controversy is how to pay the additional benefits.

      A Senate bill would tack a fee on VA mortgage loans. Opponents say it's nothing more than an additional tax on Veteran homebuyers.

      Supporters argue even with that fee, VA loans are much cheaper than what's available on the open market.

      Bornes is now retired and tends to his model train hobby, which he calls relaxing, and to his diabetes, which causes pain and numbness in his hands and feet.

      He said he's convinced his diabetes is linked to Agent Orange, but he's more concerned about his fellow sailors facing more serious health problems.

      “Now that we're getting sick, we can't get the benefits that we deserve,” Bornes said. “Something is wrong.”


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    • No Soldier Burried Alone


      OMAHA, Neb. - A Vietnam Veteran who recently died with supposedly no living relatives will not be buried alone.

      Stanley Stoltz will be laid to rest at Omaha National Cemetery Tuesday.

      Scores of Veteran groups and civilians plan to attend the internment ceremony thanks in part to a plea on social media that went viral.

      "It's just been a tremendous outpouring of support for this man and even non-Veteran-affiliated groups," said Good Shepherd Funeral Home director Michael Hoy.

      Hoy said a hospice social worker called a week ago asking if they could provide Stanley Stoltz, a Vietnam Veteran with no known family, a proper burial.

      "That became our mission," Hoy said.

      Besides contacting Veterans groups, they also posted a notice in the newspaper and on social media. The notice included a plea for people to attend the Tuesday service.

      It was also an attempt to find out more about Stoltz and if he had any family or friends near by.

      The notice went viral, even attracting the attention of CNN reporter Jake Tapper, who posted the notice on his Twitter page.

      "After publishing that some family did come forward, that live a distance away. One may in fact travel to the service," Hoy said.

      It also touched a patriotic heart string.

      "The Legion Riders will be there, the Patriot Guard will be there, of course the Veterans honor guard," said Dick Harrington.

      He is with the Final Salute Society, a volunteer group that has represented about a couple dozen soldiers at the national cemetery over the past two years.

      "It's extremely important that somebody represents the Veteran. Nobody dies alone," Harrington said.

      KETV Newswatch 7 was able to learn that Stoltz grew up in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

      Former classmates said he was a soft-spoken and kind soul.

      His ex-wife said he was haunted by the Vietnam war which lead to substance abuse.

      In 2012, he came to the Stephen Center in Omaha, a homeless shelter for people committed to sobriety.

      Stoltz ended up at a Fremont nursing home where he died last on Nov. 18.

      He will be laid to rest beside other heroes and not alone.


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    • PTSD 002


      With the headlines of U.S. Navy Fleet Commander Scott A. Stearney’s untimely death earlier this month, it is just another tragic reminder of the toll combat takes on these brave men and women even after they come home.

      The numbers are mind-blowing. The Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported that more than 20 Veterans and active duty service members, guardsmen and reservists commit suicide every day in this country. That’s nearly one suicide every hour, and more than 80 percent of them are Veterans.

      There aren’t enough people and systems to help Veterans, and they keep falling through the cracks. I consider these people a vastly underserved and unreached community.

      The effects of combat-related trauma run deep, down to the warrior’s very heart and soul. I know this from personal experience, having served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      War keeps you running at full speed, always on guard, ready to fight at a moment’s notice. After enduring such extreme conditions for long periods of time, returning to the normality of civilian life is not easy.

      When I came home, nothing felt real to me. Watching TV with my wife didn’t feel real. Walking through the aisles of the grocery store didn’t seem real. My feelings were not easy to identify at first. I just felt “off,” but I didn’t always know why. I didn’t know what was happening to me.

      This is common among Veterans who struggle after returning home. We can’t always draw a straight line from how we feel back to the experience of combat. We don’t want to     believe that the fighting affected us.

      I was in denial. I didn’t want to acknowledge the strange sensations for what they were. But eventually, I couldn’t ignore what was happening. I was struggling with the after-effects of combat.

      Everyone experiences this differently. There are, however, a few classic signs — anger, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive behavior and flashbacks. At one point or another, I have suffered from all of them.

      Eventually, I got help, and there are some wonderful organizations that help Veterans, but many Veterans aren’t as fortunate as I was. Typical interventions such as clinical treatments and group therapies are inadequate and usually ignore the spiritual dimension to trauma. The spiritual dimension to trauma includes topics such as grief, guilt, and shame. It can manifest through things that the warrior has experienced or done on the battlefield.

      Many Veterans dealing with these challenges isolate themselves from friends and family. They don’t think that people understand what they’ve been through. It’s hard for Veterans to communicate to non-Veterans about combat experiences and post-combat struggles. A common complaint from family and friends is, “I can’t reach him or her” or “They won’t talk to me.”

      Veterans do want help. But sometimes they just don’t know how to communicate it. And once they’re able to speak out, they don’t always know how to connect or who to connect with. That’s why it’s very important that when Veterans reach out, especially to a church or nonprofit, the organization is ready to receive them.

      These organizations should have a program to get the Veterans connected with a small group of people who understand and appreciate the Veteran and his or her family. Belonging to a community with a sense of camaraderie is key. It’s something Veterans had while in the service and something they are looking for when they get out.

      It is crucial that when our Veterans return home that they have available to them a support group that will help them walk through everything they have experienced on the battlefield. Even more so, these groups are imperative to helping these brave men and women begin the healing process, pointing them in the right direction to restore broken relationships and begin to knit together the wounds of the heart. Ultimately, that is what will assure a successful transition back into mainstream society.


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    • Website Updates 002 

    • Rating Reduction


      There are several different approaches the VA can take to reduce benefits. Of course, the possibility of a rating decrease is heavily dependent on whether the case is protected or unprotected.


      The Requirement of Sustained Improvement

      If a rating has stabilized or continued at the same level for five years or more, the VA must show that all evidence of record indicates a sustained improvement in the disability. This means the medical history for the disability in question must be considered when reviewing records for a possible rating reduction. If the VA cannot show sustained improvement, it cannot reduce a Veteran’s rating.

      The VA must also review the entire record of examinations to determine whether such examinations are full and complete. If not, they may not be considered in a VA rating reduction.

      If the disability has shown temporary or episodic improvement, it cannot be reduced unless all evidence clearly shows sustained improvement. The VA must also consider whether the material improvement shown “will be maintained under the ordinary conditions of life.”

      The Requirement of Fraud

      If a Veteran’s disability has been rated at the same level for 20 or more years, the VA cannot reduce it unless it can show that the disability rating was based on fraud.

      The Requirement of Material Improvement

      When the VA considers reducing a 100% rating (including TDIU based on individual or combined rating), it must determine whether there has been a material improvement in the physical or mental condition evaluated at 100 percent. An examination is necessary for the VA to do this.

      Additionally, if the Veteran has experienced material improvement on a schedular rating, VA must still consider whether he or she qualifies for TDIU.


      Even if a Veteran’s rating has not been in place for five years or more, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has established the following:

      • Proposed reductions must be based on review of the entire history of the Veteran’s disability.
      • The VA must make a determination as to whether there has been an actual change in the disability.
      • Improvement in the disability must be shown in the Veteran’s ability to function under the ordinary conditions of life and work.
      • Examinations reporting any such improvement must be thorough.


      When the VA determines a rating reduction is proper, due process protections apply. The VA must provide prior notice to the Veteran of the proposed reduction. The Veteran must be given 60 days after the notice to submit evidence to rebut the proposal (the 60-day notice requirement is not enforced in cases where the Veteran’s compensation will not be altered as a result of the reduced rating).

      The Veteran also has a right to a predetermination hearing, which must be requested within 30 days of notification of the proposed VA rating reduction. The proposed reduction, if implemented, would not take effect until after this hearing has taken place.

      In the event a Veteran receives a proposed VA rating reduction, it is important to provide any and all evidence to fight the VA’s proposal. If the VA schedules an examination, attendance is critical. Failure to do so will result in an automatic reduction.

      Veterans Serving Veterans

      If the VA unfairly reduces your rating, don’t give up. There are many ways to fight this decision. One of them is hiring a Veterans’ law attorney.

      With many Veterans counted among our attorneys and staff, we know firsthand the struggles service members face when they return home with injuries and disabilities. Our firm has worked closely with Veterans for fifty years and we have recovered millions of dollars in back pay awards.


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    • Going Back to School


      Welcome to The Bridge, a regular column from Andrea N. Goldstein on the experience and challenges of transitioning from the military to civilian life.

      I was drunk at a Korean karaoke bar in Bahrain when I decided I was going to leave the Navy. I made up my mind when between songs, I overheard someone who was about to take terminal leave say, “If you know you’re not going to stay in for twenty, leave sooner rather than later.”

      It wasn’t a knee-jerk decision. I planned my exit from the Navy well in advance (and publicly on Task & Purpose). I wanted to go to the graduate school of my choice full-time on the timeline that I dictated. Like many others, I also wavered about when I’d leave. After deployment, I dropped my papers to resign my active duty commission and started grad school applications. I left active duty two years ago, and in May, I graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

      Conventional wisdom about being a Veteran in school focuses on benefits or jokes about being an older student. And most of it holds up, no matter the kind of program, whether you’re a first-time, first-generation college student, or getting a Ph.D. But here’s what nobody tells you:

      Trauma has an incubation period

      I didn’t realize how some of the worst days of my service had profoundly affected me until the second semester of my first year, when I started white-knuckling the desk in the back of the lecture hall in one of my classes. I didn’t serve in direct combat, and the kinds of missions I supported don’t make the news unless something goes horribly wrong. I felt like I didn’t deserve to feel the anxiety that lived in my bones. It took interviewing hundreds of women Veterans for my thesis, including a handful who had a similar military experience to me decades earlier, to realize that we were struggling with some of the same issues and that was okay.

      For many Veterans, the college or graduate school application process is the first time they have to tell their story, and that often brings up a lot of challenging memories. Know this, and use it to grow stronger.

      Take care of your health. Seriously.

      The military broke most of us somehow—and for many, it takes a while before we notice. Get enrolled at the local VA for healthcare before your semester starts. I was able to do well in school because VA Boston helped me get healthy. You can choose not to use the VA, but it’s always better to have and not need than to need and not have.

      Self-advocate: I was admittedly not great at this. All schools have a point of contact for disability accommodation, and your needs can look different. I hated asking for accommodations, but was always relieved they were in place when I needed them.

      Self-advocacy is exhausting and choosing expediency may be the best thing for your self-care, even if it impacts your grades. Chronic pain is a rude roommate who does not care when you have midterms. At times, getting an extension so I could get through a flare was a godsend. At other times, I took B’s on some papers in my last semester that I could have gotten A’s on because I decided being done was better for my health and self-care.

      Veterans in academia matter

      Veterans use their experience to forge new research agendas. Pat Tillman Scholar Gretchen Klingler, who learned Iraqi Arabic in the Air Force, is currently conducting research with Iraqi women through her studies in anthropology at Ohio State. Another Tillman Scholar, Texas A&M medical student Andrew D. Fisher, left the Army and started a group to promote Stop the Bleed, which brings lessons learned about bleeding control from the battlefield to local communities. For my master’s thesis, I interviewed women Veterans to understand why women Veterans are less likely to self-identify in their communities—and learned that there’s hardly any qualitative research on women Veterans.

      As Veterans, we often complain that the civilian world doesn’t know or care enough about us. If we are not part of the conversation, it will take place behind our backs or not at all. In academia, we can spearhead the research that informs the public and shapes policy.

      You need fellow Veterans more than you think

      Marginalized Veterans are often the first to self-select out of being part of the Veteran community. Why would we continue to try to be part of an organization that mistreated us? As a Veteran, I found my tribe. Particularly among Pat Tillman Scholars and fellow Veteran classmates at Fletcher, I members of the military community who, like me, felt out of place on active duty.

      That said, don’t just stay in the Veterans bubble—seek social experiences that make you uncomfortable. I met some my best friends in graduate school in an a capella group, and through a recurring happy hour the Veterans club had with former Peace Corps volunteers (we called it “War & Peace.”)

      Where you go to school really matters

      Going back to school directly after the military gave me the opportunity to reflect in a way that I would not have known I needed had I gone straight to work. My courses taught me a vocabulary that helped frame past experiences and gave me tools to accomplish more than I could have imagined. I had time to network, work a summer internship at a top company, and figure out what I didn’t want to do.

      Don’t rush. If you’re on unsure footing on your path, take the time to conduct research and spend some time in community college. Seek support from Service to School, Warrior-Scholar Project, and Posse Foundation Veterans Program. Aim high, and you may end up somewhere that changes the trajectory of your life.


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      The VA offers protections for disability ratings that have been in effect for certain periods of time. Until these regulatory protections kick in or your ratings become permanent, VA may severe or reduce a Veteran’s disability rating based on specific findings.


      Severance is when the VA tries to revoke a finding of service connection. If the VA tries to sever service connection, it will notify the Veteran of the proposed action and give him or her 60 days to submit evidence to show that service connection should not be severed and 30 days to request a hearing. If the Veteran does not submit evidence within that 60-day window or request a hearing within 30 days, the VA will issue a final decision.

      In cases of severance, Veterans are given added protection if they have been service-connected for the condition for 10 years or more. Under 38 C.F.R. 3.957 in the VA code of regulations, a Veteran’s service-connected disability that has been in effect for ten years or more “will not be severed except upon a showing that the original grant was based on fraud or it is clearly shown from military records that the person concerned did not have the requisite service or character of discharge.” The ten-year period is calculated from the effective date of the award for service connection. For example, if a Veteran was granted service connection for a low back injury effective October 20, 1980 and the VA issued a decision dated August 29, 2018 attempting to sever service connection, the VA would have to abide by the ten-year rule above.


      Veterans with disabilities that are not considered permanent may be sent for future VA examinations in order for the VA to evaluate the severity of those disabilities and rate them appropriately. If the VA finds that a Veteran’s condition has improved, it can reduce a Veteran’s disability rating.

      The VA is required to follow the same process for reductions as they are for severances. This means that if the VA wishes to reduce a disability rating, they must issue notice of the proposed reduction and give the Veteran 60 days to submit evidence and 30 days to request a hearing. However, there is one major difference between the process of a reduction and severance. When the reduction would not change the actual amount of compensation that a Veteran is receiving, the VA does not have to issue notice of the reduction.


      An easy way to tell if your VA disability ratings are permanent is if the VA has deemed you to be totally and permanently disabled. This means that the VA does not see a reasonable chance of your conditions improving. However, if you are not “permanent and total,” the VA has regulatory protections for reductions of service-connected disabilities.

      Under 38 C.F.R. 3.951 (b), the VA cannot reduce a rating that has been “continuously rated at or above any evaluation of disability for 20 or more years” unless it is shown that the rating was based on fraud. So, for example, if you are rated at 20% for a right knee disability from January 1994 and the VA proposes to reduce your right knee rating to 0% in March 2017, they can only do so if they find that your initial 20% rating was based on fraud. If they cannot show that, they cannot reduce your 20% rating. This rule protects disabilities that have been increased over the span of 20 years or more as well. For example, the Veteran who receives 20% for his right knee disability from January 1994 was increased to 30% in 2006. In March 2017, the VA proposes to reduce his 30% to 0%. Although the rating for the right knee condition changed between the initial grant and the proposed reduction, he is still protected under the 20-year rule.


      For Veterans that have been granted entitlement to Total Disability Based on Individual Unemployability (“TDIU”), the VA can only reduce that rating if “actual employability is established by clear and convincing evidence” (38 C.F.R. 3.3.43(c)). What that means is the VA can only sever your TDIU if you have been found to be employable. For Veterans with TDIU, the VA will send out a yearly employment questionnaire to see if a Veteran participated in substantially gainful employment during that year. In order for the employment to be substantially gainful, a Veteran would have had to be employed for 12 months or more and would have had to earn over the federal poverty threshold.

      Check out our video on Permanent and Total disability HERE.


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    • AO Symptoms


      WICKLIFFE, KY — October is Agent Orange Awareness Month.

      Agent Orange is a powerful herbicide that contains the deadly chemical dioxin. About 11 million gallons were sprayed in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.

      The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says any Veteran who served anywhere in Vietnam during the war is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.

      Kathy Diehl lost her husband, Ron, a year ago to the effects of Agent Orange.

      A poster at the Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum is dedicated in his honor. They didn’t know the herbicide was the cause until after his death.

      Diehl warns Veterans to be aware of symptoms of conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure and not to ignore them.

      “If you look at the list of symptoms from exposure to Agent Orange, there are those signs. And people need to look at those, our Veterans do. And they need to seek early treatment and get those things documented.” Diehl said.

      Agent Orange has been linked to several diseases and other health conditions. For a list of those issues and more information about Agent Orange, click here.


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    • Robert Wilkie 10


      WASHINGTON — Robert Wilkie is slated to appear before lawmakers this week for the first time since he took over as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs two months ago.

      The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee scheduled a hearing, “State of the VA: a 60 Day Report,” for Wednesday afternoon, where senators are expected to ask Wilkie about his plans for implementing several major, congressionally mandated reforms.

      Wilkie, a former Pentagon official, was sworn in June 30 after months of political infighting under former VA Secretary David Shulkin. His dismissal this spring led to an exodus of other VA leaders.

      Veterans groups are looking to Wilkie to bring stability to the embattled agency, and they expect to hear Wednesday how he plans to do it.

      “I think he’s really walked into a tough situation,” said Bob Wallace, executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars. “He’s really got a full plate in front of him, but I think he’s capable of meeting the challenge. I think he’s the right person at the right time for the VA.”

      Here are a few issues Wilkie is likely to be asked about.

      Implementing the VAMission Act

      Chanin Nuntavong, a director with the American Legion, said Wilkie has “huge undertakings” to tackle at the VA. The biggest could be implementing the VA Mission Act, a $52 billion, far-reaching bill approved in June that overhauls the VA’s private-sector care system and extends benefits to more Veteran caregivers.

      Most of what’s in the Mission Act is supposed to be implemented by June 2019, but there are already concerns about whether the VA will meet that goal.

      The Mission Act outlined dozens of deadlines for the VA to submit progress reports to Congress. Three reports were due Sept. 4. Of those, two were several days late and one still hadn’t been submitted as of Tuesday, according to the office of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

      The missing report pertains to the VA’s progress with extending benefits to Veteran caregivers. The Mission Act mandates that the VA provide benefits, such as monthly stipends, health care and medical training, to caregivers of Veterans injured before May 7, 1975.

      “VA needs to be hitting these early milestones if it’s going to meet the later ones,” Tester said at a Sept. 5 hearing. “It needs to do better.”

      Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group, has also expressed concern about the VA meeting the deadlines, particularly those regarding the new program for private-sector medical care.

      “It’s important for the VA to meet these deadlines to show that one, they’re taking this seriously, and two, they’re going to be transparent about it and show they can be trusted,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of CVA. “If they can’t meet a deadline on a report for Congress, how can they be trusted to run the whole program?”

      The Mission Act does away with the Veterans Choice program, which was created in 2014 to allow some Veterans to receive medical care in the private sector, but only when they live more than 40 miles driving distance from a VA facility or their wait for a VA appointment would be more than 30 days.

      Some claim the Choice program was implemented hastily, and many Veterans thought the rules were too rigid. Under the Mission Act, Choice expires in June, and a new system is supposed to take its place.


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