Veterans Benefits Information guide to VA benefits

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Veterans Benefits Information

VA secretary notes improvements spearheaded by Legion

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has improved the quality of care while reducing wait times, VA Secretary David Shulkin told 9,000 American Legion Family members Wednesday morning in Reno, Nev.

“Our major priority this fall is to get the Choice Program working in a way that works better for you, takes out the red tape, takes out the complexity and changes it from a system based on an administrator to a system that functions in a clinical way, the way it should function,” Shulkin said. “That will give veterans greater choice over their care. We’re going to eliminate the 40-mile, 30-day requirement. That doesn’t make sense for people who want to get health care.”

Shulkin cited Choice as one example of how VA is working to improve for veterans. “(Choice) is fundamentally important,” he said. “It’s our primary strategy of how we are going to make the VA a better place, to make it more competitive. When people want to get services from you, it makes you want to get better.”

He credited the Legion for helping usher in five major new pieces of legislation that benefit veterans, including the updated GI Bill, VA accountability, Choice legislation and VA appeals modernization.

“The American Legion does fantastic work,” the secretary said. “It’s an amazing organization and I love working with The American Legion.”

Providing greater choice for veterans is one of five major priorities that Shulkin created to improve VA. The four others are:

Modernizing VA: Under this initiative, Shulkin included infrastructure improvements. He noted that there were more than 400 VA facilities dating back to the Civil or Revolutionary wars.

“Too many of our facilities are getting old and in disrepair,” he said. “We are going to be disposing of 1,100 facilities that are vacant or underutilized and reinvesting those resources back into facilities that veterans are being cared for right now. That will allow us to rebuild and to modernize our VA.”

Improving timeliness of services: Referring to the wait-time crisis in Phoenix from a few years ago, Shulkin said, “That can never happen again.” His goal: “Making sure that every veteran with an urgent critical need never has to wait for care.”

Shulkin also noted that the timeliness of appeals must be improved, saying that the recent bill to address this modernizes legislation that had not been updated since before World War II began. He said that in March 2013, there were more than 611,000 claims that had been backlogged over 125 days, compared with just over 92,400 as of this past June.

Focusing resources more effectively: Shulkin noted that since President Trump was inaugurated, there have been 500 VA employees removed from their positions. “We are no longer going to tolerate employees who do not share the values that we share; that it is an honor and a privilege to serve our veterans,” Shulkin said. “We’re moving those people out of the VA because they have lost their right to work in the VA.”

He also emphasized the need to focus on medical care that is not as prevalent in the private sector, such as treatment for PTSD and TBI. “We’re actually moving more money into those programs, doubling down on those strategies to really build world-class facilities across the country for things that matter to our veterans,” the secretary said.

Addressing suicide prevention: Calling the 22 daily suicides by veterans, “a public health crisis across America,” Shulkin noted how VA is working to reduce the number. He said that the Veterans Crisis Line has greatly reduced the number of blocked calls — from 30 percent to less than 1 percent now — by hiring more staff to handle the calls. “If veterans are getting the right care and help, we can make a difference.”

Shulkin says that there is evidence that veterans are trusting their VA facilities more than in the past. He cited Yelp, an online review system where users can review and rate services, restaurants, hotels and more.

According to Yelp reviews, VA hospitals received an average of 3.7 out of 5 stars, compared with 3.19, the average for non-VA hospitals. “While we have a long way to go until we are satisfied, this is an indication that we are doing some things better and we are moving in the right direction.”

Shulkin promised that more changes are on the way. “For too long we have neglected modernizing the VA,” he said. “You are going to see a number of decisions I will be announcing to modernize the system.”

In conclusion, Shulkin said, “We will never let this system be privatized.”

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Trumps signs appeals modernization act at American Legion convention

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President Trump signed legislation Wednesday at The American Legion’s National Convention that will go a long way toward fixing the beleaguered VA appeals process.

“To fulfill our patriotic duties, we must take care of our great veterans,” Trump told about 9,000 American Legion members at the second day of the general session in Reno, Nev. “One year ago at this gathering, I promised you that I would make it my priority to fix the broken VA system and deliver to our veterans the care they so richly deserve.”

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 creates three appeals “lanes.” Veterans would choose the one that best suits his or her needs. The three lanes will be:

• Local Higher Level Review Lane in which an adjudicator reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor.

• New Evidence Lane in which the veteran could submit new evidence for review and have a hearing.

• Board Lane in which jurisdiction for the appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans Appeals.

“I want to thank The American Legion for getting this done,” the president said. “It’s something they’ve been trying to get done for 40 years. And we’ve passed VA accountability legislation. The Legion has a lot of power and they use it well.”

The law’s impact will be felt for a long time. “No longer will veterans be waiting to get their appeals heard,” Trump said. “And they will get decisions much more quickly in a faction of the time.”

As of last spring, more than 470,000 appeals of claims decisions were pending. The average wait time for these appeals to be fully adjudicated is five years. If nothing changes, by 2027 veterans will wait an average of 10 years to get a decision.

The bipartisan bill, H.R. 2288, was crafted with much input from The American Legion. It is expected to shorten the average wait time for final appeal decisions from five years to 125 days.

American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt welcomed the news.

"Today's signing is a major victory for America's veterans," Schmidt said. "I can think of no better place for the president to sign this bill than at the national convention of America's largest and most influential veterans service organization. The legislation is a simple, fair and appropriate way to ensure that our nation's veterans — and their families — receive their earned benefits in a timely and efficient manner."

During his speech to The American Legion, Trump also addressed other key issues:

• Patriotism: “The American Legion embodies the spirit of patriotism. That is the true source of our strength and the hope for our future. You cherish our values and you defend our great American flag.”

American flag: “It is time to heal the wounds that have divided us, and to seek a new unity based on the common values that unite us. We are one people, with one home, and one flag,”

• Infrastructure: "We don’t have to be content with a dilapidated road system with crumbling buildings or rusted out factories. We can build gleaming new highways and state-of-the-art manufacturing and modern works of wonder. And we can do it all with American workers and American iron, aluminum and steel.”

• Young people: “Every veteran here today is part of a long, unbroken chain of American heroes. We salute your service. The American Legion not only teaches history, you help keep history alive. You teach young Americans to have pride in our history so that they will have confidence in our future, history and culture. For generations now, The American Legion has taught young people the principles of America. You’ve emphasized the need to preserve the nation’s cultural, moral and patriotic values. You encourage the observation of patriotic holidays. You stress the need to enforce our laws, including our immigration laws.”

• Newly signed Harry Colmery GI Bill: “Under this legislation, veterans can use their GI Bill at any point in their lifetimes.”

• Recent violence: "We will never tolerate crime in our cities, bloodshed in our communities, or acts of hatred or terrorism against our citizens. We will always support our great law enforcement personnel.”

• Defense spending: “We are committed to expanding and improving our missile defense systems to shoot down missiles in flight. We are getting better and better at it. We will develop better surveillance and long-strike capabilities to prevent our enemies from launching them in the first place.”

Trump also noted positive gains in the war on terrorism, while noting that more work needs to be done to prevent Islamic State and other organizations from using the Internet as a recruiting tool. “We will pursue an honorable outcome in Afghanistan,” Trump said. “Our troops have already made a tremendous sacrifice. We will give the men and women in uniform the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.”

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Maryland firefighter receives Legion award

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On Aug. 23, during The American Legion's 99th National Convention in Reno, Nev., Darren O. Ware received the organization's National Firefighter of the Year Award.

Ware is assistant fire chief of the Prince George's County (Md.) Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department and a 21-year veteran of the department. He is a nationally certified instructor and a dedicated teacher, and served a lengthy term as a Big Brother.

From 1988 to 1992, Ware served with the Old Guard regiment of the U.S. Army, and was a member of the Presidential Honor Guard.

On April 20, 2016 - already a hard day as the department was conducting services for a member killed in the line of duty - Ware, on his way home from his shift, took the initiative and lead in rescuing a driver from a vehicle fire.

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Michigan trooper receives Legion law enforcement award

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On Aug. 23, during The American Legion's 99th National Convention in Reno, Nev., Joseph Rowley received the Legion's national Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award.

Rowley is a 17-year trooper with the Michigan State Police. He serves as a departmental instructor in firearms and defensive tactics, as well as a field training officer. He has coordinated his district's participation in the Fallen Trooper Memorial, spearheaded the collection of donations for a fellow trooper's father after a house fire, and volunteers his spare time at a camp for children with cancer, a memorial baseball tournament and more.

One important highlight of his criminal investigations over the past year was his work on a credit-card fraud case that led to the discovery of a commercialized sex/human trafficking operation.

"I am so grateful for everyone here," Rowley commented, " ... for the way you make me feel welcome as a law enforcement officer."

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Soldier’s Wish boosts single dad with surprise gift

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Peter Lucas thought he and his three toddlers were going to lunch and then touring The American Legion’s national convention in Reno, Nev., on Tuesday.

Instead, the single father and Marine Corps veteran learned about the generosity of Soldier’s Wish and American Legion Family members. After being homeless and living in transitional housing for several months, the family moved into a three-bedroom home in Reno last Saturday.

During a surprise presentation in the exhibit hall, Soldier’s Wish donated a $1,000 Walmart gift card to help Lucas get settled in with his twin 4-year-olds and 2-year-old son. Immediately, Legionnaires passed a hat and collected $800, which was handed to Lucas with well-wishes.

“I am proud to be standing next to him,” Soldier’s Wish Executive Director Mark Ochsenbein said. “He served his country proudly. But sometimes things just don’t go your way. Cpl. Lucas is having a difficult time right now. We’re all veterans. We’re all here to help out.”

Lucas was stunned but grateful as his children played with miniature toy soldiers by his feet. “This is completely shocking,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on. All I can say is thank you to everybody. This is more than I could ever ask for.”

The family had been sleeping on pallets and living out of boxes since moving into their home. Now, Lucas — a new member of the Legion — is inspired by the kindness of the organization.

“I am amazed that people care so much,” he said. “I haven’t been around so many people in so long that genuinely care, so tightly knit as a family. This is going to help us get the house livable.”

Ochsenbein credited the entire Legion Family. “We wouldn’t be here today without the support of everyone — Auxiliary, Sons of The American Legion and Legion Riders. Thank you for your camaraderie and helping out this great veteran.”

Shane Whitecloud, a Navy veteran, works with the Northern Nevada Veterans Resource Center. The center helped Lucas with shelter and then worked with Ochsenbein on the Soldier’s Wish gift.

Members of the Legion Family took turns hugging Lucas and offering support, including Richard Eberly, who works as a DVOP specialist with the state of Nevada. Eberly told Lucas to call him and he would help him find a career.

“I actually joined The American Legion so that I could help veterans,” Eberly said. “It’s something I enjoy doing.”








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