In This Issue:
- The New Director of the Philadelphia VA Regional Office Introduces Himself to the Council
- Community Educational Outreach’s Journey of Discovery Reaches Its End
- Changing Our Stripes in Employment
- Health Care in Our Community is at a Critical Stage in Its Development
- Adam Keys Smart Home Build May or May Not Continue
- A New Program Director Has Been Found for the Visitation Program
- LVMAC is on a Mission to Recruit All the Area’s Universities and Colleges
- Finally, Something Significant Out of State Government
The New Director of the Philadelphia VA Regional Office Introduces Himself to the Council
Robert McKenrick, the relatively new Director of the newly reorganized Philadelphia VA Regional Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration, spoke to the Council at its business meeting on 21 November. He brought along Eileen Kostic, Manager of the Veterans Service Center, and Leroy Saunders, a Military Services Coordinator. Mr. McKenrick is a current war veteran from the Army Reserve.
Recently what was known as the VA Regional Office and Insurance Center (VARIOC) split with Vincent E. Markey assuming the role of Director of the Philadelphia VA Insurance Center, which operates the eighth-largest life insurance program in the world and the fifth-largest in the country and covers more than 4 million veterans, active-duty service members, and Reserve Component and National Guard members, plus 3.1 million spouses and children.
McKenrick operates the remainder as the Philadelphia VA Regional Office (VARO), which serves forty eastern counties, the seven southern counties in New Jersey and all three counties in Delaware. Its Pension Management Center (PMC), however, follows the recent trend of consolidating activities as has occurred in the VA home loan and educations programs. It now serves the thirteen eastern states of the United States, Puerto Rico and all foreign countries with the exception of those countries in Central and South America. The 1,150 employee VARO (the insurance center retained about 300 employees) vies with St. Petersburg as the largest.
He went on to relate some demographic information. Currently in the United States, there are about 236.5 million adults of service age. There are 21.5 million veterans of all ages. 505,000 adults of service age live in the live in the Lehigh Valley. It has 45,500 veterans. The ratio works out to about the same: 9 per cent. Of these 9% are unemployed, 72% are 55 or older, 5% are female and 25% have one or more disabilities. The Period of Service breakdown is currently: 7,230 World War II, 5,000 Korean War, 15,000 Vietnam War, 5,000 Gulf War and 3,500 Global War on Terror veterans.
The regional office is facing its challenges in quality service and training. “Warfare has changed,” McKenrick stated, “We are now getting 50 to 60% of the force going to war being supplied from the Reserve Components and that brings on new problems in the reintegration of the National Guard and the Reserves. Combat units have a higher need. Therefore, the make-up of the Reserve Components drives the types of needs in one’s community, also.” Current war contentions (conditions for which a claim is submitted) are now averaging nine, double that of the World War II veterans.
In facing the challenges, the office has done several things. It now staffs at 102% to compensate for turnovers in employees [Editors: Note: formerly the goal would have been in the high 90’s]. It has simplified its claims notification letters. It has emphasized the submission of Fully Developed Claims using the new VA Form 21-526 EZ, with the goal of a 90 day turnaround from start to finish. Fully developed claims, especially the idea of complete medical records with good evaluations accompanying them, “… save months, even years …”
On that note, he went on to explain the importance of using Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQ) for civilian doctors [and also VA doctors] for examinations. Standardized responses help. Some hold out. [The quality of VHA examinations and the greater professional medical community has been a longstanding bone of contention in the system.]
They are also pushing eBenefits, for the current generation is tech savvy and it saves time. They are also creating a “state portal for veterans service officers” so they can check without having to call into the office [This has been a particular problem for County Directors of Veterans Affairs.]
The movement towards a “paperless claims” system to prevent the loss of records has begun. Over 350,000 claims in the Philadelphia office alone are involved. “For some individuals, a claims file has stacked 8 to 10 feet tall and in such a world it is hard not to lose or misplace files.” They have hired two contractors to do the scanning. “It will take years, but we must bite the bullet.” He noted the Insurance Center has been paperless for years and it works.
Eileen Kostic then discussed the new compensation claims processing improvement model that has been implemented as of 29 October, based on its testing at ten other VARO locations. They have gone to a “lane” concept with quality review team and an Intake Processing team [mail room?] being added to the mix. The plan is to get to “98% accuracy and 125 days by 2015.” It currently employs about 330 employees in the regional office. The lanes and the number of teams being assigned to them based upon anticipated volumes are:
- Express: Claims that have only one or two medical conditions, or have all the supporting documentation, medical evidence and service records needed for an expeditious rating decision—referred to as “fully developed claims”. Two teams have been assigned.
- Special Operations: Claims requiring special handling because of the unique circumstances of the veterans. These include financial hardship; homelessness; serious wounds, injuries or illnesses; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder associated with military sexual trauma; and former prisoner of war status. One team has been assigned.
- Core: Claims with more than two medical conditions, or those that will need additional evidence to make a compensation decision. Four teams have been assigned.
The 2010 Agent Orange regulation (which is related to class action suits and court decisions related to compliance with the Nehmer decision of 1985) affected 71,000 veterans and cost over $250 million dollars to settle in the Philadelphia Office. It had helped to create a backlog of work. [This has to do with retroactive payments to veterans and their survivors for certain illnesses now recognized presumptively as due to Agent Orange.]
McKenrick in his concluding remarks took note of the VOW [Veterans Opportunity to Work Act of 2011] and the requirement now to make 100% of transitioning veterans [the Transition Assistance Program], that it is now a multi-day program, and that veterans are now allowed to fill out and submit their claims then and there. Over 1 million claims are now submitted a year, as opposed to 60,000 a year [600,000?] prior to the war. He said the VA is expecting to reduce [chronic] homelessness among veterans to 60,000 by the end of the year. It is currently about 147,000. In his final remark, he praised and highlighted the Philadelphia Veterans Services Commission for its work and filtering out frivolous claims [which bog down the system]. Apparently he believes in working with veterans service officers to improve performance of the system.
LVMAC Plans for the Coming Year
We are now in the budget planning cycle for next fiscal year. What it is resulting in is some changes, additions, and retooling of our programs. In the coming year we will also be pushing for a more active membership and seeking those who understand that you do not join an association such as ours to sit on the sidelines to complete your resume. Some organizations are doing a terrific job in contributing. We could not ask more of them. Others, however, are not. It is an old story, nothing new to the nonprofit sector of voluntary associations, but in an organization such as ours with broad interests and difficult tasks ahead, it requires more involvement, not less to achieve a transformation in the way we approach caring for our military veterans in the present day world beyond. True caring lies in actions, not the expressions of them. There is no better time in our history to renew ourselves, for we are approaching our tenth anniversary of existence.
Creating a More Aggressive Homelessness Program
We will be overhauling our Homelessness Program. We want a more aggressive preventive homelessness/homelessness program one that connects those in need to vital services near seamlessly no matter how that person or his family is discovered. Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center needs to take advantage of the social agencies down here and not work in its own world, except when it needs help in finding some cash or billeting. They need to work with Allentown’s Commission to End Chronic Homelessness and the Northeast Regional Homelessness Advisory Board rather than ignoring it. The loss of the Valley Wide Helpline to the 211 concept that the United Way has promoted has had an impact on veterans services information and referral and case management locally. To improve the situation will now require a more formal coalition of forward thinkers. It will increase our funding outlays also, no doubt. Pat diLuzio of Victory House is charged with this mission
Community Educational Outreach’s Journey of Discovery Reaches Its End
As reported previously, we want to get into the school districts to help children of those who serve in the military but also to better connect veterans families to them as an asset: PTA’s and school boards need to be more aware of the military child in our area. This is a new venture for us. In the process, we have discovered that in our area little has been done in this area by governmental agencies or bodies in terms of actions. Trying to work with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs’ State Youth Coordinator and Operation Military Kid seems to be heading for a dead end. We need to determine for ourselves what is needed – Department of Defense demographic surveys on this issue are lacking. So, Robin Carmody of First Generation, while continuing to review potential existing programs, is also now interested in constructing a survey to establish demographics by school district and also need. In addition, we now think a military child website tailored to our area would be useful. If interested in helping her, contact the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Changing Our Stripes in Employment
JOVE, our employment training program, is to be retooled into a mentoring program. Experience is telling us that while the core curricula is sound the method of delivery needs to change and in a community such as ours a mentoring program is probably a better option for it. Dave Newton, originally of Lehigh Valley Professionals, is charged with that effort and is reforming his team.
We are also looking into a partnership (discussions have now progressed to this point) with the Baker Institute of Lehigh University, the Allentown Economic Development Corporation and now the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation for an entrepreneur training program. A recent survey suggested that about 40% of all returning veterans would prefer to work for themselves. They are to submit a proposal to us. A Program Director has been found. It was Max Harris of Combat Veterans with PTSD, an Associate Member, who started this initiative and got the parties together, as we previously reported.
Health Care in Our Community is at a Critical Stage in Its Development
Our sights are set on a second CEO Conference in March. The Resource Manual development is now underway. The work on the Resource Manual has supported the contention that collaboration between public sector health care systems (VA, TRICARE) and private sector hospitals is necessary. The idea of having formal liaisons and representatives in each hospital network, including the supporting VA hospital, has already born fruit in solving problems at a system level. Equally important, the hospitals are being sensitized to the fact that most veterans do not use the VA and we are failing to ask the proper questions of them to ensure first-class care.
Let’s face facts. Only 39% of veterans are enrolled in the VA healthcare system. VA projects another 30% could be using it. These percentages, and their underlying numbers, are deceiving because enrollment does not mean high or any use of it. Outside literature supports what we are doing. In the Lehigh Valley less than 20% of veterans use the VA health care system. Therefore, we are a potential national model on how to approach the problem veteran healthcare in a joint manner, and interest among a few of savvier legislators has been expressed. If things work out, we could be preparing the roadmap for other communities. Project lead is our Eric Johnson from another member organization, the Lehigh Valley Hospital Network.
Adam Keys Smart Home Build May or May Not Continue
We’re in the process of contacting Tunnel to Towers to continue our collaboration with them on their “Building for America’s Bravest” program, which builds adapted homes for those veterans truly in need of such assistance. It’s a good program. If they are prepared to move, we will be touching our member organizations to get involved. Key to our planning, however, is that we now need to determine from them if Adam Keys will decided to settle down in the Lehigh Valley. LVMAC is a regional organization and the funds it raises are intended to be used in the Lehigh Valley. Dottie Niklos of Blue Star Mothers is heading up this effort.
A New Program Director Has Been Found for the Visitation Program
We have found a new subcommittee chair for our Visitation Program in Cordelia Miller of the Bethlehem NAACP and formerly of the Lehigh Valley Red Cross. This old program of LVMAC’s needs some reinvigoration and a plan has been drawn up for discussion. Visiting veterans in private nursing homes is a neglected but important aspect of caring. It is also easily done if our membership and others work together. Plus, it has benefits to the nonveteran residents. We might consider adding hospice efforts to this program subject to what is required, for the current visitation program requires no training and hospice volunteers might. We’ll get down to business with the coming year. Meanwhile we have almost run through our yearly funding to the organizations which participate and the homes visited.
LVMAC is on a Mission to Recruit All the Area’s Universities and Colleges
We are making an effort to sign up every college and university in the Lehigh Valley as member organizations. They are a gathering place for returning veterans if the report that 25% of them go to college in about a year from discharge. The next step will be push for the formation of veterans clubs where they do not exist. It is an old idea actually, dating back several wars, but the young think they have discovered the idea of it. What they have discovered for themselves is the value of such associations. About 1.5 million have now served in the current wars, over 90,000 of them from Pennsylvania alone. This figure does not include the service members who did not deploy to combat theaters. Together, for a nation as large as ours, that represents less than a per cent, a very small number. Therefore, we are looking to find a StudentClub Coordinator/College Liaison. If interested contact the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Finally, Something Significant Out of State Government
SB 1531, which creates the Pennsylvania Veterans Trust Fund and mechanism for contributing to it, is now law (Act 194 of 2012). It has one year to be up and running. HB 2428, its companion, which authorized the indication of veteran’s status on standard drivers’ licenses is also law. It has 18 months to be and running. Now we want to see a good plan for implementation to ensure money gets where it is needed and not become the government slush fund. We don’t particularly like the possibility of the idea PennDot might get first dibs on donations to the trust fund to compensate it for implementing this state-level “vet card” program. That is hidden taxation without the donor’s knowledge. Over a half a million dollars is planned for implementing this program and on first blush that seems exorbitant. Let PennDot wait in line. The vet card isn’t as important compared to other pressing concerns.
Nor do we want our legislators to think that through corporate and public donations they have end-runned their basic responsibilities of fully funding important services to veterans, e.g., Act 66 of 2007 which uses veterans service organizations to provide service officers to supplement the county directors’ of veterans affairs work.
HB 2191, which would have led to payday usury of up to 369 percent and would affect our Reservists and National Guardsmen, died in the Senate for this legislative session. The question remains, will the Legislature try to pass another law next legislative session with a similar usury provision. Probably, powerful lobbying forces are at play.
As of 30 November 2012