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Benefit issues roil veterans at forum

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POSTED: September 16, 2010 11:51 a.m.
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U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston

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Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., made an appearance at a veterans services forum Tuesday in Savannah to address veterans’ concerns about medical care eligibility. The meeting stirred up emotions for many veterans who said they are unhappy with the benefit enrollment process.
The three-hour event at Armstrong Atlantic State University drew an audience of about 200 people, who crowded into a conference room.
After   brief introductions by AASU’s president and several employees of the Veterans Affairs Atlanta Regional Office, Kingston greeted the audience and offered statistics about veterans affairs.
“The VA processes 6.1 million claims every year,” he said.
 Kingston stayed positive, assuring the veterans the claims office is a busy place and everything is being done to ensure the timely arrival of benefits.
The veterans affairs budget is $45 billion, and is “very stretched right now,” Kingston said, due to the war and combat veterans returning in large numbers.
“The VA keeps up as best they can … but there is always room for improvement,” he said.
Kingston allowed veterans to come up and pose questions to the panel, which mostly was comprised of employees who work directly with veterans to help them file claims.
About five veterans immediately shuffled up. Some expressed anger about the slow process of filing claims. Others were upset about the commute they must make to receive care.
After several veterans angrily voiced their opinions to the board, Wil Price, assistant vocation rehabilitation and employment officer, offered to see veterans privately and work on their claims personally.
Each time a veteran spoke, a member of the panel promised immediate contact the next day to help them through the process.
When a few attendees began to protest loudly to the panel, Kingston asked the remaining veterans with questions to wait for the breakout sessions where officers could speak with each individual.
One veteran continued to speak despite the congressman’s request. The veteran said he had had six heart attacks, one of which put him in a 21-day coma, and the VA would not pay his medical bills. He demanded to know why and how the board was doing anything to improve the system.
Bambi Anderson-Ivers started to address the veteran, who identified himself  only as Mike. However, he cut her off and told her she hasn’t done anything in her 30 years and doesn’t understand. 
Jason Stansberry, a veteran’s service representative from Atlanta, addressed the veteran even though Stansberry was not scheduled to speak.
He spoke in a firm, but understanding tone, quieting the veteran.
“I listen to you guys. It is an absolute honor to work with you,” said Stansberry, an Iraq veteran. “And I’m sorry this agency has failed you. I worked in Iraq for six months. Six months is long enough to see people die,” he said, referring to veterans who previously mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder.
Veterans also were encouraged by Anderson-Ivers to file claims for PTSD since the offices have become more lenient than they were in the past, she said.
Eighteen vendors at the forum distributed information and literature on various organizations aimed at helping veterans secure benefits.
Steve Williams, who works as a health administrator at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C., wants veterans to know that enrollment for benefits, including educational and medical, are easy to access and it takes as little as 10 minutes to fill out the paperwork.
“Fifty thousand veterans enrolled in Charleston this year,” he said.
As a Navy veteran, he said he understands the need for clinics, especially in the Hinesville area, and promised, “We will try to get clinics here in Georgia,” so the commute is shorter for those who travel frequently for medical services, he said.
Last year, the VAMC in Charleston was rated No. 2 for the best care in the nation, Williams said.
A 34-year Coast Guard veteran, Kevin Smith said he came to forum because he was interested in what Kingston had to say.
Although he has not utilized veteran services, he said, “I’m here to listen and to learn.”
Smith, 63, also thought the forum was placed conveniently before election time.
“Now that the pressures on, I wanna hear what they have to say.”

 

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