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Many Vets Still Unaware of Benefits
Despite billions of additional dollars pumped into veterans' benefits in recent years, many military personnel still leave service unaware of their VA benefits or of programs set up to help them transition to civilian life, a senior Defense official and veteran advocates testified Wednesday.
Noel C. Koch, deputy under secretary of defense for wounded warrior care and transition policy, said he has visited many military hospitals and interviewed "hundreds" of service members, many recovering from wounds.
"It's a constant source of partly amazement and partly disappointment at how little aware they are" of benefits and programs to help them either return to full duty or smooth their path into veteran status
Communication "seems to be the entire issue," Koch explained. Despite a lot of work being done to address this gap, the government fails to communicate effectively with departing members, particularly younger ones.
"This is partly a generational issue," Koch told the House veterans affairs subcommittee on disability assistance. Young veterans "don't communicate the way people my age communicate. They don't refer to these thick manuals we put out that are just chock full of information, which nobody reads. Even websites are becoming somewhat antiquated in the eyes of some of our younger service members."
As a result, Koch said, the Department of Defense and the services "are moving into social media," such as Facebook and Twitter, to try to break through to departing members about their VA benefits.
Thomas Tarantino, director of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, agreed that benefits information is not reaching many service members before they separate.
"When I left the Army in 2007, I had absolutely no idea of the scope and availability of the benefits I was entitled to as a veteran," Tarantino said. "In fact, it never even occurred to me to seek benefits in health care from [VA] just for the general wear and tear of a decade of military service. If it weren't for an old sergeant major who was attending the Army Civilian Alumni Program with me, I would have never even applied."
He said DoD and VA "must integrate" their outreach programs before discharge to "ensure a smooth transition of services…Otherwise, more men and women are going to fall through the cracks."
Gerald T. Manar, with Veterans of Foreign Wars, said VA has representatives at 153 military installations to educate members on benefits. Veteran service organizations like VFW have difficulty persuading base commanders to let them fill that role where the VA can't. But often space is at a premium and many commands are wary of such arrangements.
Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.), subcommittee chairman, held the hearing to assess effectiveness of two particular programs that give those leaving service a jump on applying for VA health care and disability benefits.
The Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) program was started modestly after the Persian Gulf War. Last year it helped 51,000 separating members get a comprehensive medical examination and apply for VA disability benefits before leaving service. The program is offered 60 to 180 days before discharge. Details are online at: www.vba.va.gov/VBA/benefits/factsheets/general/BDD.doc
Recognizing that few Reserve and Guard members have enough active time remaining after an overseas deployment to use standard BDD, Congress in 2008 approved a Quick Start program for them. It is available from one to 59 days before separation.
Both plans cut the post-service wait for a VA disability decision. Those who use the BDD typically can get a VA disability decision within two to three months of separation versus six to seven months for those who wait until after discharge to file a claim.
These two programs are separate from the new Disability Evaluation System pilot that VA and DoD have launched at select sites. All three, however, rely on a single comprehensive health exam while still on active duty, usually done by the VA, to replace the practice of sending members through both a military pre-discharge physical and a post-service VA exam.
Daniel Bertoni, with the Government Accountability Office, testified that both BDD and Quick Start are valuable transition tools. But GAO identified weaknesses. For instance, VA ignores time spent preparing a claim while on active duty when it calculates the average time saved by those use BDD versus the traditional path to apply for VA disability benefits.
Hall noted that only the Marine Corps requires members, before discharge, to attend a VA benefits briefing as part of their transition process. Why, he asked Koch, doesn't DoD require all of the services to do that.
"You touched on a very sore point," Koch said. He would like to see such a mandate but there are "contravening priorities." Some commanders object to these kinds of mandatory briefings, Koch said, citing limited manpower to spare the time, particularly in theaters of war.
What his office requires instead is that members be told that a VA benefits brief is available and they will get time off to attend if they choose. "We have not, in every case, been able to do that," he said.
Koch reminded Hall that his focus is on wounded warriors -- making sure they know their benefits and get the support they need. The BDD, on the other hand, is available "to everybody…but not everybody needs it.
"They are not necessarily hurt in anyway that would give them access [to VA benefits]. In other instances, they just don't want to be bothered with it," he said. But in some cases, Koch conceded, "I'm sure there are people who simply don't know about it because we have failed to reach them."
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