August 15, 2014

Veterans air disability concerns at Wichita VA town hall meeting

About 40 veterans and family members attended a VA town hall meeting Friday at the downtown library to voice concerns about getting disability benefit claims resolved.

Kenneth Taylor, a Marine veteran from Burden, is happy with the medical treatment he has received from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wichita.

But during Friday’s town hall meeting at the downtown library, he told VA administrators he’s frustrated that it took 17 years to get his disability claim for PTSD settled.

“Deny, deny until they die,” Taylor said. “That seems to be the VA’s strategy.”

About 40 veterans and family members attended the two-hour meeting that was quickly put together by the VA to discuss claims for disability benefits.

A number of veterans said more would have been there if information about the meeting had gone out sooner. The media, service organizations and congressional offices were notified Wednesday afternoon by the VA.

Mitzi Marsh, director of veterans benefits at the VA’s Wichita regional office, said she was told Aug. 8 by the Washington, D.C., office that VA sites across the country must hold a town hall meeting by the end of September.

Robert McDonald, who became the VA’s new secretary in late July, issued the order in response to a backlash over long waits for medical care and to get claims resolved.

Wichita’s benefit office was specifically told to have a town hall meeting this week, she said.

“I apologize for the short notice,” Marsh said. “We’ll give more notice for the next one.”

That will be Sept. 26 for the VA’s medical side. The meeting will be from 1 to 3 p.m. in the auditorium at the Robert Dole Medical Center, 5500 E. Kellogg.

Vets speak out

A Vietnam veteran told Marsh that he repeatedly has been denied a benefit claim involving Agent Orange, a powerful defoliant that the U.S. military sprayed on Vietnamese jungles. Agent Orange also has been linked to health problems for veterans’ children and grandchildren.

The veteran said his wife had a miscarriage and another child was stillborn.

“The veterans have lost your trust,” he said. “Get your act together.”

“We’re here today to get your trust back,” Marsh replied. “We’re working hard to develop the trust. We’re listening to you, and I do share your concerns.”

Some VA employees came to the meeting equipped with laptops to try to resolve problems on the spot.

While Friday’s meeting was supposed to target only benefit issues, VA officials anticipated medical questions. So Jim Parker, interim chief of staff at the Dole center, was there to take questions.

One came from a woman who described herself as a daughter of a World War II vet, wife of a Vietnam war vet and mother of an Afghanistan war vet.

Her concern was about her son’s care. She said he was brought into the VA’s emergency room on a suicide watch, but she wondered why the center didn’t have inpatient psychiatric care.

She noted that seven other veterans were waiting for psychiatric help at the time her son came to the ER.

“I’m not just speaking for my son,” she said, “but for all mothers’ sons.”

She said the emergency room doctors and nurses did “what they could. We got through that patch. But what about the next patch?”

“I have no argument with you,” Parker said.

The Wichita VA just finished expanding its mental health service capacities, he said, but acknowledged it doesn’t have inpatient psychiatric care.

“We have to look for other place, use other VAs and community resources,” Parker said. “But there’s a shortage of that capacity in Kansas and in Wichita.”

Backlog reduced

Marsh told the audience that her office has a goal to reduce its backlog of benefit claims to zero by 2015. A claim is considered to be on the backlog list if it has taken more than 125 days to resolve, she said.

From the peak backlog of 3,523 claims in April 2013, the Wichita office had cut the total to 1,591 by Tuesday, she said.

A Vietnam veteran suggested the VA create a database so vets could check on their claims’ status.

“It’s like you people are in the 19th century on this,” he said.

In March 2012, Wichita’s VA became the nation’s pilot site to launch electronic processing of benefit claims, Marsh said. The work had previously been done by paper.

“With the (electronic system), there was a little bit of build-up,” Marsh said. “We got a little behind. We have improved the claims process, but we have a long way to go.”

Korey Johnson, who served in Afghanistan and received a medical discharge, questioned Marsh about her staff’s training.

“Are your people at the front desk equipped with the knowledge of the forms?” he asked.

“Yes, they are very well versed on job responsibility,” she replied.

Johnson said he recently asked a front desk worker about a claim and got the following response:

“I don’t know what you need to do. I’m just the messenger.”

A number of veterans lauded the medical staff at Wichita’s VA.

“Behavior health has the best nurse,” said a vet who served a 17-month tour in Iraq. “If it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be here today.

“I don’t tell her that because I’m afraid she might get a big head and leave.”

Bob Rogers, a World War II veteran who was wounded while taking part of the landing at Normandy in 1944, said he’d never had any problems with the VA.

“I’m sorry you guys are having trouble,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear all these bad things.

“I’m glad we didn’t have Agent Orange in Normandy, but we did have a lot of German shrapnel.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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