The many challenges facing veterans, including stalled legislation that could benefit them and a backlog of claims at the Veterans Administration, were among the subjects discussed Saturday at a forum sponsored by HARRY Veterans Community Outreach Services held at West Salem Square.
Cheryl Rawls, director of the VA Regional Office in Winston-Salem, was among the speakers. Her office, which processes claims from vets from North Carolina and numerous other states, made national headlines last year when an Inspector General’s report cited it for an overabundance of paperwork sitting idly at the office, so much paper, the report stated it had “the potential to compromise the integrity of the building.”
Pictures of thick folders piled on top of filing cabinets at the office became a symbol of stagnation at the VA. Some veterans are waiting years to have their claims processed. Rawls, who only arrived at the local VA earlier this summer, said the media portrayal was “inaccurate.”
“I would like to tell you our building is not falling down,” she said. “Those pictures that have been so prominently displayed – and where we have been the bud of many jokes in many late night comic relief – is totally inaccurate. What I will tell you is that those files, we knew where each and every one of those files were. They were sequenced.”
She said the files are now either in high density filing cabinets or have been transferred elsewhere. The real problem isn’t organizing files, she said, but a massive increase in claims. The office receives between 3,200 – 3,900 a month but only had the capacity to process 2,600 claims monthly, Rawls said. A VA-wide initiative that helped overwhelmed local offices, helped the Winston-Salem office and others with claims that were older than two-years-old. There was 1,481 such claims at the local office when the VA stepped in to help, Rawls said. Within 60 days of receiving the assistance, all the claims had been processed.
Rawls said now that the backlog has been cleared, the office is making “excellent progress” on the claims that are more than a year old. She said the ultimate goal is to get all claim request to within 125 days.
Rawls said files are now being computerized to speed up the process. The local office has also begun to work with veteran advocates so that they can help vets properly complete required paperwork. Incomplete or faulty paperwork adds to the backlog and delay, she said. Fully developed, properly-completed claims can be processed in 100 days or less, said Rawls, who added that the VA has the ability to expedite claims in the cases of financial hardship.
A panel of HARRY board members, elected officials and others discussed other issues as well.
Board member Jerald Taylor talked about the fight to get a donation check off on the North Carolina tax form that would fund veterans’ projects at no cost to the state. A petition with thousands of signatures is going around and 26 legislators – both Republicans and Democrats – have signed on to the idea, but it stalled in the most recent General Assembly session when the chairs of the Veterans and Finance committees refused to hold a vote.
Taylor said he was told that lawmakers have concerns about the potential of funds being mishandled; others fear the fund would result in lawmakers deciding to hold back state and federal funds for programs for veterans. Taylor said the fight for the fund will continue in the next session.
“We don’t play nice next year,” he said. “We name names. We’re going to call for a major march on the legislature, and we ain’t going nowhere until this veterans’ bill passes.”
On the local front, HARRY Project Manager Jerry Anderson talked about a proposal that would allow property owners to donate condemned buildings to HARRY for tax credit. HARRY would then – working with community partners – transform the properties into housing for veterans and others.
South Ward City Council member Molly Leight said she supports giving non-profits condemned properties, but told attendees such efforts could be impeded by the length of time it takes the City to process condemned property cases. Anderson believes that hurdle can be crossed by getting residents to donate such properties directly to HARRY instead of waiting for the City to condemn and take over the property.
N.C. Sen. Earline Parmon confirmed that the General Assembly had done little last session to directly benefit vets, although she did note that she made sure the new voter ID law includes Military IDs as a legitimate form of identification.
Torre Jessup, district director for U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, had little recent veterans-related news from Washington. He did talk about November 2011 laws signed by President Obama that directed the VA to establish job training programs for veterans and provide a cost of living increase for veterans.
In August 2012, the president signed into law an act making veterans and their families who lived at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune from 1957-1987 – when it is believed the base’s water was contaminated with chemicals – eligible for VA medical care. The law also allows veterans to submit evidence for appeals directly to the Board of Veterans Affairs.
Jessup said recently that there have been bills that have passed the House but stalled in the Senate. They include HR 5948, which calls for background checks of fiduciaries the VA appoints to manage the money for incapacitated veterans and provides families with an appeals process if they’ve lost confidence in a fiduciary and the Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012, which would direct the VA to develop a report for Congress on a comprehensive policy to provide more information to current and former service members about higher learning opportunities.
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