Veterans Benefits Information

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Veterans Benefits Information

10 things to know about the new VA modernization act

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The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act (AMA) becomes effective Feb. 19. The law is one of the most significant changes made to VA and transforms how VA reviews disputes with VA claims decisions.

“VA has been preparing for full implementation of the Appeals Modernization Act (AMA) over the past 18 months,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “Our staff has worked diligently, particularly in the last few weeks, to ensure the new, streamlined process is available to Veterans in February.

Here are some facts you need to know about AMA:

  1. The AMA was signed into law by the president on stage at The American Legion’s 2017 national convention.

  2. Appeals modernization will transform the claims appeals process into a simple and timely process.

  3. The AMA gives veterans who disagree with a VA decision more options when it comes to appealing that decision.

  4. Under the new law, veterans will have three options for claims and appeals — supplemental claim, higher-level review or direct appeals to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA).

  5. VA aims to complete supplemental claims and higher-level reviews in an average of 125 days.

  6. Decisions appealed to BVA will average 365 days.

  7. Claims average three to seven years under the current process.

“VA remains deeply committed to helping veterans receive the benefits they have earned in a timely manner. The new appeals process honors this commitment by providing veterans more choice and control over how their claims and appeals are handled,” said Cheryl Mason, chairman of BVA.

Additional information about VA appeals modernization is available here.


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The American Legion's agenda for Congress

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The American Legion has published its legislative priorities for the 116th Congress, focusing on topics such as fully funding a national defense, improving health care for women veterans and protecting the American flag.

Additionally, The American Legion is encouraging Congress to redefine the wartime service period, extending it to Dec. 7, 1941, to honor all veterans who have served since Pearl Harbor was attacked. The language stems from Resolution 1, which was passed by the National Executive Committee during Fall Meetings in 2018.

Download the the Legislative Agenda brochure.


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Commemorative coin, record month of giving atop February report

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The American Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program to financially assist needy military and veteran families with minor children at home broke a single-month record in grant distribution during January’s federal government shutdown. The U.S. Mint struck the first American Legion Centennial Commemorative Coin on Jan. 31, and American Legion VA disability claims specialists handled hundreds of cases for veterans during the first month of 2019.

Looking ahead, the Veterans Employment & Education Commission is planning special events at the front end and the back end of the Washington Conference, starting with a Feb. 22 resume-writing workshop, networking luncheon and hiring fair at the Washington Hilton. On Feb. 28, the day following the Washington Conference, the commission welcomes the Veterans Benefits Administration for a GI Bill symposium at the conference hotel.

For a quick take on American Legion activity in January and coming attractions in February, click here.

Other membership impact reports to view:


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West Los Angeles VA may finally be on track to help homeless veterans

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More than three years after settling a lawsuit over the misuse of its West Los Angeles campus, VA may finally be on track to provide housing, mental health treatment and other assistance to at least 1,200 homeless and disabled veterans on the 387-acre site. However, 490 units of housing won’t be ready next year as the settlement dictated.

“We knew the VA would have some struggles executing this,” says Chanin Nuntavong, director of The American Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation (VA&R) Division. “This is a drastic improvement where they were before,” he says, referring to the last site visit by representatives from The American Legion’s Washington, D.C., office in 2017.

Nuntavong and Roscoe Butler, deputy director of VA&R, met with Meghan Flanz – the West Los Angeles VA official overseeing development of housing and healing programs for homeless veterans – as part of a fact-finding mission Feb. 7. Michael Hjelmstad, commander of American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood, and Larry Van Kuran, National Executive Committeeman for the Department of California and co-chair of the Greater Los Angeles VA.

Community-Veterans Engagement Board, also attended the briefing.

“Our members were concerned about what was taking so long,” Nuntavong says of the visit to campus. “I wanted to meet with the leadership here and see what’s going on so I can better inform our leadership.”

Nuntavong and Butler credit Flanz, who has only been at the West Los Angeles VA since January 2018, for the progress the agency has made in West Los Angeles. “I think they are headed in the right direction now that Meghan is here,” Nuntavong says. “She has a very good grasp of what’s required.”

However, Flanz needs a project manager, a budget specialist and other staff to help her manage the massive project, Butler says. “I would hate to see her burn out because she’s a one-person team,” Nuntavong adds.

Flanz provided an upbeat picture of VA’s progress, including the selection of an experienced private development group to renovate existing buildings and construct new housing for veterans in need, part of a plan to return the West Los Angeles VA property to its original mission. Known as The West Los Angeles Veterans Collective, the development group includes the construction arm of Century Housing, Thomas Safran & Associates – which specializes in financing and managing low-income housing – and U.S. VETS, which provides housing, employment and mental health services for veterans.

Yet, Flanz also acknowledged VA won’t live up to its pledge to open 490 units of permanent supportive housing for women, elderly, and physically and mentally disabled veterans by next year, a shortcoming the agency’s inspector general highlighted in report last September. That optimistic promise, part of an agreement to settle the lawsuit over illegal leases that allowed private businesses to operate everything from a hotel laundry to charter bus facility on the West Los Angeles campus, didn’t account for the comprehensive environmental review of the campus redevelopment required under federal law, she says.

The VA Inspector General also criticized leases West Los Angeles VA signed with Brentwood School – which has its athletic facilities on the campus – and other private entities after a federal judge invalidated earlier agreements with some of the same entities. VA has until September to respond to the Inspector General’s findings – some of which the agency disputes.

Still, Flanz understands the frustration with the pace of housing development at West Los Angeles VA. She expected to see extensive housing construction underway when she transferred from the VA’s Washington, D.C., offices to Los Angeles a little over a year ago. But once the environmental impact study and a strategic plan are completed in mid-summer, VA should be ready to move ahead.

There are other obstacles. Flanz anticipates that some residents of the upscale Brentwood neighborhood adjacent to the West Los Angeles VA, will file a legal challenge to the traffic study even though the bulk of the future new residents of campus are homeless and don’t own cars.

Nuntavong understands the neighbor’s concerns. “It can be scary when you see the type of community that the West Los Angeles VA is in, and know that they want to bring in those who are less fortunate,” he says. “But these veterans have served their country. It’s our duty to take care of them, rehabilitate them and get them back into society as contributing members.”

Vets Advocacy Inc., the nonprofit partner established to help VA under the terms of the settlement agreement, sees Flanz’s appointment and VA’s decision to hire The West Los Angeles Veterans Collective – the development group with expertise in low-income housing – as the first signs that the West Los Angeles VA homeless project may come to fruition. “After a couple of years of basically failed efforts to get started, the VA finally did two things that have at least started to turn things around,” says Gary Blasi, of Vets Advocacy Inc., and one of the attorneys who represented veterans in the lawsuit that challenged VA’s mismanagement of the West Los Angeles campus. “I don’t think that progress is all we hoped it would be. It’s just painful how much wreckage has occurred to veterans living on the street since this began.”

Vets Advocacy provided VA significant help getting the project back on track. It hired the design firm of Johnson Fain to complete the draft master plan for redeveloping the campus, which had stalled under VA’s oversight, Blasi says. Then VA Secretary Robert McDonald approved the plan, which cost about $250,000, in January 2016.

But more than three years after the settlement, VA is only providing permanent supportive housing to 54 veterans in what’s known as Building 209. And renovation of building 209 began well before the lawsuit settlement and required an act of Congress to complete, Blasi says. “The maddening thing is, Building 209 was part of a master plan drawn up about 10 years ago – and they haven’t even gotten to putting concrete on the ground under the new master plan,” Blasi says.

There's also no clear way of funding roads, utilities and other infrastructure, says Dan Garcia, CEO of Vets Advocacy, a Vietnam veteran who has served as president of both the Los Angeles Planning Commission and the Los Angeles Redevelopment Commission. That’s critical to success.

“The internal road and sidewalk network, the vehicular and pedestrian access and egress from the campus, the utilities, network data cable installations, sewage installation and connections and related infrastructure are necessary to turn the campus into an integrated veteran community as we have envisioned,” says Garcia, whose private career includes serving as senior vice president and chief compliance and privacy officer for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals. “Without it we could have isolated pockets of housing.”

Meanwhile, VA says it will complete renovation of three additional buildings by the end of 2021 that will house approximately 120 veterans. That’s possible in part because the project was planned prior to the legal settlement and the environmental impact statement has already been completed. Following that, the first new housing is planned for an area of the West Los Angeles VA campus known as MacArthur Field, which is currently used by Los Angeles area soccer leagues.

VA’s also building a new columbarium that will provide niches for 90,000 veterans and families. The national veteran’s cemetery across the road from the West Los Angeles VA – where Flanz’s grandfather is buried – has long been closed to new internments, says Flanz.

"This effort means a lot to veterans," Nuntavong says. “It brings joy to my heart knowing veterans and loved ones will have this."

Nonetheless, the agency is a long way from meeting its historic obligations in Los Angeles County, which has the highest concentration of homeless veterans in the United States. The West Los Angeles VA was built on land given to the federal government in 1888 for the express purpose of housing disabled veterans. At its peak, the campus was home to about 4,000 veterans, a post office, churches, theaters and a 10,000-volume library. VA quietly ended that service during the Vietnam War, effectively pushing mentally disabled veterans to the streets. Meanwhile, the agency leased more than 100 acres of the West Los Angeles property for a dog park, charter bus storage, a private school’s athletic center, a hotel chain’s laundry and UCLA’s baseball stadium among other private endeavors. Millions of dollars in proceeds from those leases is still unaccounted for.

A coalition including the ACLU, Public Counsel Law Center, the law firms of Arnold & Porter and Munger, Tolles & Olson, the Inner City Law Center, and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe sued on behalf of thousands of severely mentally disabled homeless veterans in June 2011. A federal judge in California ruled VA’s leases with Brentwood School and several private businesses were illegal in August 2013. Both sides appealed and court-ordered mediation failed.

The litigation was set to resume when then VA Secretary Robert McDonald initiated successful settlement discussions in 2015. The agreement calls for VA to provide permanent supportive housing, free legal assistance, family counseling and innovative mental health treatment. Women, older veterans and the most severely physically or mentally disabled veterans are supposed to get priority access to the permanent housing on the campus.

The American Legion wants to help VA finish this difficult job. “We will continue to keep an eye on the execution of this plan,” Nuntavong says. “The bottom line is this. We believe in the VA. We need to give them more time to make things right. And we will provide them with whatever help they need to better assist our veterans.”


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TALARC Post 187 in Wake Forest, N.C., holds Technician licensing class

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We have been told by some that amateur radio is a thing of the past. If that is the case, why are nearly 50 people spending three Saturdays in a row learning about amateur radio at Post 187 in Wake Forest, N.C.?

The American Legion Amateur Radio Club of Post 187, with the cooperation of the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club and the Occoneechee Amateur Radio Society, is in the middle of a Technician licensing class. Next week is the last class and the exam.

The exam will be given by the local Laurel VEC group, and there is no cost for either the class or the FCC exam. The ringleader of this class is Chris Cancilla, W4CEC, who is the primary instructor. According to Cancilla, “Today is field day. What that means to me is my instructors will be having fun on the air and I am here trying to make new operators.”

When asked why there were so few instructors in attendance. “Last week, we had half a dozen instructors who cycled through the modules.” Cancilla continued. “This week they were forced to listen to me all day. Thank goodness one of the participating parents, Kris Zeek, KD7ZOT, felt comfortable enough to step in and assist in giving my knees and my voice a rest, not to mention bringing a new instructor into the course.”

Most of the class wants to get their amateur radio license so they can use it while camping with their Scout troop or Venture crew. A few want to get involved with their area REACT or ARES teams, but a couple of the younger ones are looking to get on the air. A father and his three children are in the class. The son is with a Boy Scout troop, and as of Feb. 1 his sister will be joining him in the troop. The other sister is a Webelos Scout who will soon cross over to the troop, where the father is an active member. Good thing too. Starting Feb. 1, young women are permitted to take merit badges.

This means that all of the Scouts in the class will complete their Radio Merit Badge and receive a signed blue card for their effort. A signed blue card is the completion certificate for any merit badge. At Post 187 there are several members of the post who are members of TALARC and members of the Scouting community and Merit Badge counselors. This is a good thing. Scouts wait for a while to take this class, because they are few and far between. TALARC 187 hosts a Radio Merit Badge class three times a year at the post, one of which is the Technician licensing class being held now.

Last class the Scouts were able to speak over a repeater to Scouts at Camp Durant in Carthage, N.C. The Occoneechee Camp is roughly an hour away from Wake Forest. Utilizing the Carolina 400 network, an interlinked repeater system, was valuable to demonstrate the service and value amateur radio provides to the community.

The last step for this class – which lasts three consecutive Saturdays – is the FCC licensing exam. It will be hosted by the Laurel VEC in the area. Several members of TALARC 187 are also registered VEs with Laurel and the ARRL. One of the students was very happy about the test, as Laurel does not charge a fee for testing, so the class and the exam are both 100 percent free.

After the test is completed, the Scouts and I will embark on the last piece of the Merit Badge puzzle, ARDF. Amateur Radio Direction Finding is a valuable skill to locate all types of interference, and with the use of a MicroFOX owned by the TALARC Post 187 club, and a directional antenna made from an old steel tape measure and PVC pipes, they will find that fox and complete that section, the last section, of the Merit Badge.

How does all this play out? American Legion Post 32 in Fayetteville, N.C., along with the Venture Crew they sponsor in the post, has asked us to put on one of these Technician classes for them. Possibly 30 people in the class, both young and not no young. BUT, they can and will all be new amateur radio operators. For this, Cancilla has contacted the Fayetteville Amateur Radio Club to offer support to the class, and ongoing support and partnership with the post and the crew as they discover the fun and excitement, and the many benefits, of amateur radio.


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