Topics discussed Wednesday during a veterans’ town hall meeting included updates to the Department of Veterans Affairs procedure for providing footwear to veteran beneficiaries and the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, which extends Agent Orange-related disability compensation and VA-paid health care to an estimated 90,000 veterans who weren’t previously eligible.
The meeting took place from 10 a.m. until noon at Middle Rio Grande Workforce Solutions.
The United States military utilized Agent Orange to clear plants and trees in hostile territory during the Vietnam War. Contact with the toxic chemical is believed to have caused cancers – including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and prostate cancer – and other illness like Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and peripheral neuropathy.
In January, a federal court ruled that the VA cannot deny disability benefits to blue water veterans, a term used to describe veterans who served on open sea ships off the shore of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
At present time, Uvalde veterans service officer Lalo Zamora is working with four local blue water veterans to process claims.
Although Vietnam veterans who served on land are presumed to have been exposed to the herbicide and therefore awarded disability benefits, current VA rules say blue water veterans are required to prove their aliments are directly connected to toxic exposure while on duty.
That task is deemed near impossible by advocates, who say too much time has passed since the war.
The VA has 90 days from the Jan. 29 ruling to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, a decision that is still being reviewed by the department.
“Once this is all sorted out, we will get the word out,” said Michael Walljasper with the VA’s benefits division.
Once blue water veterans begin to apply for benefits, they may run into long waiting periods, as Walljasper said the VA has a backlog of 82,000 benefit claims.
Walljasper said claims that have been pending for more than 105 days are considered backlogged. Walljasper said the department is combating the issue with mandatory overtime shifts for employees tasked with processing claims.
“Our goal is to try to get that number down to 70,000 by the end of our fiscal year, which is in September,” Walljasper said.
When asked if Hurricane Harvey contributed to the backlog, Walljasper said the effects of the storm were minimal where the VA was concerned. The VA has regional offices in Houston and Waco. During Hurricane Harvey, the Houston office closed for three days, but many employees were still able to work from home.
Walljasper said because files are all digitized, the department was also able to distribute workload to offices that were not affected by the storm.
Walljasper also touched on the Appeals Modernization Act, which was implemented last month and includes three review options for disagreements with VA decisions.
Those options include higher-level review, a supplemental claim lane, and an appeal lane for appeals to the board.
A higher-level review does not require additional evidence be submitted, and the possibility of overturning the decision is based on a difference of opinion or a clear and unmistakable error.
Opting for a supplemental claim lane allows veterans to submit new and relevant evidence to support their claim.
“This could be a hearing test that may have been left out,” Walljasper said.
The final option allows veterans to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals by direct review, meaning the veteran has no new evidence and does not want a hearing; evidence submission, meaning the veteran has new evidence but still does not want a hearing; or a hearing, chosen when the veteran has new evidence and wants to testify before a veterans law judge.
“We are trying to hire more judges to expedite the appeals process,” Walljasper said.
As Walljasper spoke about appeals, a veteran in the audience asked why, being that he is a Type 1 diabetic, the VA no longer pays for his diabetic shoes.
A representative with VA Caregiver Support informed the veteran that the VA only pays for diabetic shoes for veterans suffering from Type 2 or Type 3 diabetes because they are considered at higher risk for complications from the disease.
When several veterans complained of an inefficient VA call center, Walljasper said to give the call center a second chance after recent improvements.
“The 800-number got a bad rap but they have revamped now, and they have decreased the dropped-call rate and answer within a minute,” Walljasper said.