VA is Reducing their Backlog of Claims: Can they Eliminate it?

VA-benefits

By Debbie Gregory.

Back in 2010, the VA established a goal to reduce the processing of all disability claims to less than 125 days, with a 98% accuracy level. Achieving that goal was obstructed when 150,000 previously decided cases from the Vietnam era needing to be re-adjudicated. Due to court rulings, the inclusion of Parkinson’s disease, ischemic heart disease and certain types of leukemia were added to the list of conditions linked to Agent Orange. The inclusion of the Vietnam era claims, added to the rapidly increasing claims from Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, caused a  considerable backlog on the VA’s claims system.

The VA defines “backlog” as any pending claim that is more than 125 days old. In March, 2013, the backlog of VA disability claims was over 611,000. At the end of March, 2014, the VA has managed to reduce their number of backlogged claims by 44%.  Over the past year, the VA has processed more than 267,000 disability claims, reducing the number of backlogged claims to 344,000.

The VA also reports that while gaining ground on their backlogged claims, they have increased their overall accuracy of claims from 83% in 2011, to 91% in 2014. The VA determines their accuracy level by dividing the total number of cases that are free from errors by the total number of cases reviewed. Using this same method, which has been double-checked and validated by the Institute for Defense Analyses, the VA scores a 96.5% accuracy rating on claims that are processed inside of 90 days.

The VA credits advancements in technology and methods for reducing the backlog. Moving from a paper application system to using online an application system for claims reduces time and man-hours. Sending, returning, correcting and reviewing claims takes much less time when done electronically as opposed to on paper, taking weeks off the processing time.

The VA has also streamlined their claims process and training methods, which makes inter-office communications and movements of claims much more fluid. The VA also took measures to prioritize claims. The VA has set a new goal to eliminate the backlog of claims completely in 2015.

“No Veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits. Through a combination of transformation initiatives and the hard work of our employees, we are making significant progress toward our goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. “We still have more work to do, and no one is more committed than our Veterans Benefits Administration employees, over half of whom are Veterans themselves.”

Veterans can learn more about disability and other Veterans benefits on the joint Department of Defense/VA web portal eBenefits at www.ebenefits.va.gov.

Two Bills for Veterans Introduced by One Senator

2 Bills

By Debbie Gregory.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire recently introduced two bills into the U.S. Senate that would benefit Veterans in both finding jobs and succeeding as small business owners.

The first bill, called the Veterans Hiring Act, S.2138, would provide a tax cut for businesses who hire Veterans. For four quarters after the hiring of a Veteran, separated under conditions other than dishonorable, the bill would offer the employer a tax break of 50% of the Veteran’s payroll wages.

The Veterans Hiring Act would work as an incentive to employers to hire Veterans and battle the high Veteran unemployment rate, especially the unemployment rate among Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. If approved, the tax break could mean a huge savings, especially for small business owners who hire Veterans.

The second bill is called the Veterans Entrepreneurship Act, S.2143. This bill proposes to lower the cost of Small Business Administration (SBA) loan programs designed to help Veterans start their own small businesses. If passed, S.2143 would permanently do away with guarantee fees for Veterans who are applying for SBA Express loans. This would also include active duty military, Reservists, as well as spouses of active duty, Veterans and surviving spouses of deceased personnel who died in connection of their service.

The Veterans Entrepreneurship Act also proposes the founding of programs to assist entrepreneurs who serve in the National Guard or Reserves. If passed, the bill contains verbiage for adding pre-deployment assistance, including financial planning and counseling for members who own their own  business.

Bill S.2143 also calls for a report from the SBA to be submitted to Congress, detailing the current levels of outreach and assistance given to female Veterans. Additionally, the bill asks for a report on the Military Reservists Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

Despite what many believe, one person can make a difference. If you support these bills that will benefit Veteran employment seekers, businesses who hire Veterans, Veteran Entrepreneurs, female Veterans and women in business, please reach out to one or both of the senators from your state. If enough individual constituents reach out to their legislators, asking for the same thing, they can’t be ignored.

Contact your senators today and urge them to support Veterans and Veteran businesses by voting YES on The Veterans Hiring Act, S.2138, and the Veterans Entrepreneurship Act, S.2143. Click Here to find contact information for your state’s senators.

March Fatality Free for the U.S. in Afghanistan

Enduring Freedom

By Debbie Gregory.

According to a DOD report, no members of the U.S. military were killed in Afghanistan in March. This would be the first time since January, 2007 that the U.S. Armed Forces went a full calendar month without a combat-related fatality.

For the first time in more than seven years, the U.S. military can celebrate, not losing a single soul to the war that has raged since 2001. March, 2014, was only the third month without U.S. fatalities since the wars broke out, the other two months were January 2007 and July 2002.

The lack of U.S. fatalities does not mean that the fighting has ceased, and twelve U.S. military personnel were injured in March. Additionally,  three non-U.S. coalition members were killed. Coalition forces, though with fewer overall deaths, have not experienced a fatality free month in almost twelve years. The last month that no coalition forces were killed in Afghanistan was in July, 2002.

Since the fighting in Afghanistan spiked in 2005, the deadliest year for the U.S. was 2010, with 499 losses. The month with the most U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan was August, 2011, when 71 Americans were killed or later died from non-combat-related injuries. As of early, 2,309 American troops have died in Afghanistan, and nearly 20,000 have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.

The U.S. military forces in Afghanistan are currently transitioning combat responsibilities from American and NATO personnel to Afghan National Security Forces. As it stands now, all U.S. personnel will pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2015, unless the Afghan government approves the Bilateral Security Agreement that will allow for the continuing presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

To many, these numbers are statistics, but each person who has been wounded or has sacrificed their life has family members and friends who suffer a heartbreaking loss. We all need to hold them in our hearts and thoughts.

Know About Your Military Employment Rights under USERRA

USERRA

By Debbie Gregory.

Military personnel, especially Guardsmen and Reservists, need to know that laws under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protect you and your right to work. USERRA obligates employers to promptly re-employ service members returning from deployment, and place them in the position that they would have been in if they had not left for military service. If the service member’s original position is no longer available, the employer is required by USERRA to provide them a position of similar seniority, status and pay.

USERRA also prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of past military service, current military obligations, or an intent to serve. Under USERRA, employers must not deny initial employment, reemployment, retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment to a person on the basis of a past, present, or future service obligation. Also, an employer cannot retaliate against a Veteran because of any action taken to enforce or exercise any USERRA right or for assisting in an USERRA investigation.

Currently, the Department of Justice is suing Con-way Freight Inc., citing USSERA, on behalf of a Veteran who claims that the company violated his USERRA rights by failing to reassign him to his former position, after he recovered from a temporary service-related medical disability.

Naval Reservist Dale Brown has worked for Con-ways’s Rock Island, IL branch since 1987. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves in 1999. In 2006, Brown was deployed to Iraq, where he injured his shoulder. Brown stayed on active duty until his honorable discharge in January, 2009. Upon his discharge, Brown went back to work at Con-way.

The DOJ claims that Con-way assigned Brown to a lower-paying position due to medical restrictions that prevented him from returning to his former position. The suit states that when Brown had made a full recovery, he notified his employer that he was able to resume work without medical restrictions. Con-way refused to return Brown to his previous position and instead made him apply for open positions as they became available. Six months later, Brown was eventually rehired to his old position, but Con-way treated him “as a new employee with no seniority to bid on assignments,” the suit stated.

The lawsuit seeks an adjustment to Brown’s seniority date as a driver sales representative to his pre-deployment date. The suit is also asking for back wages in relation to Con-way’s six month delay in re-employing Brown after he requested reinstatement following his medical clearance, and his inability to bid on desirable shifts and routes due to his lack of seniority.

Con-way denies any wrong doing, stating that they support service members and Veterans, including Brown.

Military Connection is a proud supporter of Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) and upholding USERRA laws. Our goal is not to condemn employers, but make Veterans aware of their rights and protections under the law. No Veteran should be punished or penalized in any way for their military service. For more information about USERRA, visit the Department of Labor’s website USERRA Portal.

Hire More Heroes Act of 2014 – Approval in the Senate?

Senate Jobs Bill

By Debbie Gregory.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3474, the Hire More Heroes Act of 2014. The bill passed in the House without amendment by an astounding margin of 406 to 1. The bill had 37 co-sponsors in the House, and as it moved to the Senate, it had 36 co-sponsors, and is reportedly gaining support.

The Hire More Heroes Act of 2014, currently Senate bill S.2190, was introduced by Senator Roy Blunt from Missouri. If passed, the bill would lessen the financial burden on employers who hire Veterans or Reservists, due to the fact that they would already have healthcare through either the military’s Tricare network, or through the VA’s healthcare system.

Currently, under the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, employers who hire 50 or more full-time employees are required to provide their employees with health insurance, or pay a $2,000 fine for every employee, over the 30 employee mark. This stipulation makes it extremely difficult for any small business to medium sized business to expand, as it provides no incentive to do so.

The Hire More Heroes Act provides a “two birds with one stone” solution, allowing businesses to side-step around that portion of the Affordable Care Act, while providing incentives to employers for hiring Veterans. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the Veteran unemployment rate for March was at 6%, with Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at a 6.9% unemployment rate. Previously, Veteran unemployment rates were closer to 7%, with recent Veterans maintaining a consistently high 9% or greater over several years.

Senate Bill S.2190, the Hire More Heroes Act, is supported by the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS), a congressionally-chartered Veterans’ service organization, which is also the largest association in the nation of enlisted retirees and Veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

If passed, the Hire More Heroes Act would apply to any months after December 31, 2013. Service members, Veterans, military family members, entrepreneurs, business owners and military/Veteran advocates are encouraged to urge their senators to approve the Hire More Heroes Act of 2014, S.2190.

For this, or any legislative concerns, you can find your senator’s contact information at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

Iraq War Veteran, Now Senator, Introduces Bill to Fight Veteran Suicide

Senate bill

By Debbie Gregory.

From 2004- 2005, John Walsh served as Adjutant General of the Montana National Guard, leading more than 700 soldiers in Iraq. For his service, Walsh received the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit Award, and Combat Infantry Badge. Walsh retired from the National Guard in 2012.

In February of 2014, John Walsh was sworn in as a U.S. Senator, representing the state of Montana. He is the first combat Veteran from the Global War on Terrorism to serve in the U.S. Senate. Senator Walsh rolled up his sleeves, and got to work, introducing his first legislation only weeks after taking office.

Sen. Walsh’s first bill is designed to help reduce the number of Veterans suicides. The senator joined with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) to introduce landmark legislation to combat suicides among Veterans. It is being called the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act (SAV Act).

Each day, an estimated 22 Veterans commit suicide. While one is too many, the current number is unacceptable, and desperately needs to be improved upon. This is not negotiable, and it is imperative that efforts be made for the sake of the men and women who answered the call to serve and fight for their country.

“Far too often, we’re leaving our Veterans to fight their toughest battles alone,” Sen. Walsh said. “Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there, and yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives. It is our duty to come together for real solutions for our heroes.”

According to Sen. Walsh’s website, the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act will:

  • Extend special combat eligibility from five to fifteen years – improving access to care for troops and Veterans by extending combat eligibility.
  • Review wrongful discharges – An unknown numbers of troops who struggle with mental health issues have been discharged for behavior often caused by invisible injuries. This legislation sets up a review process for potentially wrongful discharges.
  • Increase professionals in the VA – This legislation increases the capacity to meet demands for mental health care professionals by repaying medical school loans for psychiatrists who commit to long-term service in the VA.
  • Improves mental health care and suicide prevention programs – This legislation requires an annual review of care programs within the DOD and the VA to ensure resources are effectively combatting the problem.
  • Ensures training for mental health care providers – This legislation requires the VA and DOD to ensure mental health care providers have special training to identify Veterans at-risk for suicide.
  • Creates greater collaboration between the VA and DOD – Provides continuous and seamless care to Veterans by putting a timeline on the NDAA mandate to make all DOD and VA records electronic.
  • Establishes a common drug formulary between DOD and the VA– Requires DOD and the VA to adopt the same drug formulary for prescription medication to ensure seamless care.

Labor Stats Report Female Vets are Getting Hired

hirevet

By Debbie Gregory.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their monthly edition of The Employment Situation for March 2014. The numbers were overwhelmingly positive for Veterans, especially Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The BLS releases a monthly report which gives a broad overview of employment in the country. The March, 2014 report shows that unemployment is down, almost across the board.

The overall Veteran unemployment rate is down about half a point from February, and is now at 6.0%. This statistic is down more than a point from March, 2013, when it was 7.1%. By comparison, the national unemployment rate for non-Veterans is at 6.7%, only down .07% from March, 2013, when it was 7.4%.

Desert Storm Veterans, referred to in the report as Gulf War I, and Veterans of WW II, Korea and Vietnam all saw drops in unemployment from 2013,  down approximately 1.5%. Veteran unemployment rates for these conflicts remain one to two percent below the national average.

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have served in the Global War on Terrorism, named in the report as Gulf War II Veterans, saw historic monthly and yearly drops, which did not parallel with drops in the non-Veteran demographics for their age group.

For March, 2014, the Gulf War II Veterans’ unemployment rate was 6.9%. This number is down from 9.0% from last month and, more importantly, down from 9.2% in March 2013. That is a 2.3 point drop from March 2013! These numbers compare with the non-Veteran employment rates at more than three times the improvement over the past year, as non-Veteran unemployment only dropped .07 points from 7.4% in March, 2013 to 6.7% last month.

Gulf War II Veteran men dropped 1.5 points from last year (8.7% – 7.2%). This is more than a 50% gain on non-Veteran men, whose unemployment improved from 7.9% to 7.0% since March, 2013. The Gulf War II total Veterans and Veteran men unemployment rates remain just higher than the non-veteran averages.

But women Gulf War II Veterans saw huge gains in employment. Women Gulf War II Veterans were reported to have only a 5.2% unemployment rate according to the BLS report. This number is down 4.7 points from February’s 9.9%, and down 6.6 points from March 2013’s 11.8%. These numbers also do not parallel significant drops in the non-Veteran statistics for women of the same age range, whose totals dropped only .06 points since last March, and are actually higher than the Veteran mark at 6.3%.

It seems like initiatives to hire Veterans, especially female Veterans, are working. However, MilitaryConnection.com mentioned in a recent article that monthly reports don’t always provide the most accurate, long term, numbers of Veteran unemployment rates. This statement remains true. Next month could easily see the Gulf War II Veteran unemployment rates back up to 9% or greater. But, for April, let us celebrate the improvement of Veteran employment issues and continue to promote Veteran employment, Veteran jobs and companies that make it a point to hire Vets.

Elizabeth Dole Foundation: Raising Awareness for Military Caregivers

Dole Foundation

By Military Connection Staff Writer Joe Silva.

It is estimated that there are currently 5.5 million individuals in the U.S. who provide full-time care to a wounded Veteran or service member. These military caregivers are almost always family members, usually spouses, parents or children. Military caregivers assist their wounded and disabled loved ones with the daily tasks of their lives. They bathe, dress, feed and assist with toilet functions for their loved ones.

Providing such care for another would prove tasking and stressful for anyone.  But military caregivers have to deal with so much more. On top of managing their Veteran’s care for their physical injuries, military caregivers also bear witness to the psychological  injuries suffered by their loved ones, especially due to their needing full-time care. Remember that these wounded men and women were once strong enough to complete basic and advanced military training.

The VA and many Federal and local government agencies recognize the plight of the wounded and disabled Veterans and provide services and benefits for them. But until recently, the military caregiver was often overlooked.

Caring for Military Families: the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has been instrumental in bringing awareness to the military caregiver. Family members who care for their wounded Veterans hold a special place for Senator Elizabeth Dole. Her husband, former presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole, is a wounded Veteran.

Along with raising awareness about military caregivers, Caring for Families connects the caregivers to resources and programs that benefit them and their Veteran. Because military caregivers have a full load, Caring for Families wants to make it as easy as possible for these families to find and utilize the resources and benefits they need. That is why their site offers a Caregiver Resource Guide.

Caring for Families also conducts the Elizabeth Dole Fellows Program. The Fellows Program is designed to give military caregivers a voice regarding their concerns in every aspect of caring for their disabled Veteran. The Fellows Program is their opportunity to point out where strengths and deficiencies lie within the Veteran healthcare system and benefits disbursement. Fellows serve as ambassadors for all military caregivers and The Elizabeth Dole Foundation at events, in social media and at media functions. Fellows also contribute to the planning of the Foundation’s Month of the Military Caregiver, which is April 2014.

MilitaryConnection.com, the go to site for Military and Veterans, strives to connect military families with the help and resources they need. Caring for Families: the Elizabeth Dole Foundation is a great organization that is truly bettering the lives of Veteran families in need. To find out more about the organization, please visit their website at www.elizabethdolefoundation.org . If you would like to make a donation to the foundation’s cause, please click here.

Starbucks CEO Pledges $30 Million to Veteran Causes

Starbucks

By Debbie Gregory.

In this day and age,  it’s easy for the heads of large corporations to close themselves off in their ivory towers, ignoring public and social concerns. After all, while money may not be able to buy happiness, it does carry the ability to afford  comfortable seclusion from the pains of the world. But occasionally, American business leaders see issues and concerns facing their communities and their country, and they realize that they have the means and the responsibility to do something about it.

Recently, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, announced that the Schultz Family Foundation would be donating $30 million to benefit U.S. military men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The money Schultz pledged will go toward career training for transitioning Veterans, the 2.5 million Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. The $30 million will also go to research and treatment for disabilities, including Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and PTSD, which plague many service members and Veterans.

Schultz told CBS News that the reason that he is taking action is because of a deficiency that he sees with the government’s handling of transitioning and wounded Veterans.

“The truth of the matter is, and I say this with respect, more often than not, the government does a  much better job of sending people to war than they do bringing them home,” Schultz said. “They’re coming home to an American public that really doesn’t understand, and never embraced, what these people have done.”

While few would dare slander the donation, Schultz’ criticism of the government has come under fire. But there is nothing unpatriotic about stating where and how the government should improve, especially when you are prepared to personally effect change, as Schultz is.

In 2013, Schultz and his global coffee giant, Starbucks, announced a plan to hire 10,000 Veterans and military spouses over the next five years. Starbucks has also pledged to open five community stores that would offer portions of every sale to non-profit organizations that benefit Veteran employment and military families.

There is a long used quote derived from the writings of Edmund Burke that says, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” With leaders and patriots like Schultz doing their part and not standing idly by, there is increased hope for Veterans that are battling TBI, PTSD and unemployment.

Tragedy Strikes Fort Hood Again

Tragedy Strikes Fort Hood Again

By Debbie Gregory.

Another tragedy has befallen soldiers on the U.S. Army base Fort Hood. For the second time in five years, an armed U.S. Army member in uniform opened fire on fellow soldiers on their home base.

On August 23rd of last year, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan received the death penalty for his November 5, 2009, shooting spree, which resulted in the death of thirteen soldiers, and the wounding of 32 others. Hasan specifically targeting soldiers in uniform, passing on people in civilian attire.. A few weeks ago, building 42003, where most of the 2009 shootings occurred, was demolished.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 2, 2014, the soldiers of Fort Hood, the largest Army base in the U.S., were fired upon by one of their own. Using a .45 caliber hand gun, the shooter killed three people and wounded 16 others, before being confronted by base military police. When confronted, it is reported that the shooter branded his pistol and shot himself.

The shooter has been identified as Spc. Ivan Lopez. Lopez, 34, was originally from Puerto Rico. Lopez served nine years in the National Guard in Puerto Rico before enlisting for active duty in the Army in 2008. Lopez’s initial MOS was as an Infantryman, but he later became a truck driver. He was recently assigned to the 13th Sustainment Command stationed at Fort Hood.

Lopez was deployed twice, including a four month deployment in Iraq in 2011. Lopez reportedly served as a truck driver on his deployments. It is reported that Lopez’s service record has no history of Lopez ever engaging in combat, or receiving any wounds.

However Lopez did “self-report” receiving a traumatic brain injury while he was deployed and was reportedly being treated for several conditions, including anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances. Lopez had been prescribed drugs, including Ambien.

Spc. Lopez was fully examined last month by a psychiatrist. He was never diagnosed with PTSD, and officials say that Lopez’s doctors found no sign that he was likely to commit violence or harm to himself or others. It is also worth mentioning that Lopez had a clean military record, with no behavioral or disciplinary incidents.

Lopez’s motives and intentions remain a mystery, and the Army community at Fort Hood is once again picking up the broken pieces of another attack from within. The question remains, how do we prevent another senseless attack on our men and women in uniform at another installation? Is it a question of policy, security or mental health treatment?

Please remember that FOUR soldiers died at Fort Hood on Wednesday, not just three and a shooter. How could these deaths have been prevented? What can we do differently going forward?