Slow claims processing was the preferred topic of conversation during a roundtable discussion Oct. 24 between local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7392 and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash.
The discussion was the first of several talks Larsen had planned for District 2 and the event drew about 20 people to the Oak Harbor VFW. Larsen began with a brief overview of the issues he has been working on in Washington, D.C. that have an impact here, including the success of the Community Based Outreach Clinic the VA established in Mount Vernon in 2009.
Larsen said the goal for the primary care facility was to have 6,500 veterans signed up in its first five years of operation. In the three years since the facility opened, 6,000 veterans have signed up.
“It’s clear you veterans were right in pushing the VA to open these clinics,” he said. “Now we have to make sure we’re providing a way for veterans to receive the benefits offered there and what we can do to improve or expand them.”
Helping veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and hearing how changes in the military’s Transition Assistance Program are working is also important, said Larsen, as are the results being seen from the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.
“We’re trying to find a way for our men and women coming home to transfer their military skills to civilian jobs,” he said. “And another important part of VOW to Hire Heroes is that it includes a tax credit to employers who hire veterans.”
The VA and Department of Defense have also teamed up to provide legal assistance to veterans who have been hurt by mortgage abuses or who need assistance with refinancing.
The first question from the veterans attending was from VFW service officer Gary Cosper.
“The biggest complaint I hear from veterans is the time it takes to process claims,” he said. “Why can’t some of these service members be trained to help with the process?”
“The VA is hiring more people to process claims,” Larsen responded. “But I agree the process will never be fast enough, especially with the number of folks we have coming home. There will be more claims to the VA with the same number of people to process them.”
According to Cosper, new claims to the VA by still active or newly separated personnel — which have priority for processing — have a waiting period of about seven to nine months. The problem, agreed those in the room, is the appeals, which can take two to five years to settle.
“New folks get in first, as they should, and appeals are handled second,” Larsen said, “but two to five years is a long time.”
Tricare, the health care system for service personnel, retirees and their families, was also a hot topic, particularly the switch to United Health Care, which will now administer the Tricare program.
“TriWest lost the contract, which will now be administered by United Health Care,” said Larsen. “We will be paying close attention to how the transition is implemented and how the veterans community is treated. Everyone is going to be watching this closely…because this is a multi-billion-dollar contract that affects people’s health.”
Also present at Wednesday’s discussion was Dan Matthews, Larsen’s opponent in the upcoming general election. As the meeting wound down, Matthews tried to ask Larsen a question.
“You’re running against me,” Larsen told him. “I’m not going to answer any questions from you.”