By Rick Rogers
California lags behind states like Texas and Florida when it comes to landing federal benefits for its 2.1 million military veterans, according to a state audit report, which said better coordination among state, federal and county veteran service organizations and more robust outreach is needed to turn the tide.
But Tom Splitgerber, San Diego County veterans’ service officer, said veterans could increase their chances of landing Veterans Affairs benefits and reduce their wait times by taking a few steps:
• Have all your paperwork together, including DD214 (discharge papers), medical and personal records. This includes medical records from civilian doctors. Service records can be requested free of charge online through www.archives.gov. The telephone number is 314-801-0800.
• Don’t miss VA appointments. Failure to appear can set the process back 120 days.
• Answer all VA questions in a timely manner or else face another delay that can add months to the process.
• Find a veteran’s advocate for help. A good place to start is San Diego County Veterans Services Office, (619) 531-4545. Veterans who use advocates are shown to get higher awards and have their applications approved more quickly.
• Focus on most important health issues for an initial claim.
“Concentrate on the most important health issues,” Splitgerber advises. “Once you’re in the VA system, a veteran can always reopen his or her case and add items. But get into the system first.”
Former Assemblywoman Mary Salas, D-Chula Vista, once the chair of the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee, asked for the state audit in March 2009 to determine whether the needs of California’s veterans were being addressed by the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
The 92-page audit also examined CDVA’s interaction with other state departments and agencies and how the organization allocates funds among its various veterans programs.
“California is home to over two million veterans. Unfortunately, an increasing number of veterans are homeless or are experiencing social and employment re-entry issues due to post traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses,” Salas said.
Salas said that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are falling into homelessness at a rate faster than their predecessors and suggested that the state should look into providing veterans housing while they transition from the military.
She outlined the audit during a recent meeting of the San Diego United Veteran Council. She vowed to hold hearings in Sacramento on ways to improve services for state veterans.
“It is apparent,” Salas said, “that based on the findings contained in this audit that the CDVA — the primary state department established to serve the needs of veterans and their families — is not adequately fulfilling the responsibility of serving this important and vulnerable constituency and therefore I intend to make implementing these reforms the top priority of the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee in 2010.”
Ted Puntillo, CDVA deputy secretary for veteran services and a former veteran service officer in Yolo County, said the CDVA is aggressively seeking ways to better provide for veterans, but that the effort is severely limited because of no money.
“We are drastically under-resourced to do what the legislature wants us to do in the state. We need more boots on the ground to get the job done,” said Puntillo, who was appointed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in July 2008.
For example, there are just 173 certified veteran representatives for the entire state with a veteran population in excess of 2 million, Puntillo said. Just six of those are in San Diego County, where the veteran population is about 235,000.
“The audit covered many years in the past, we are moving forward and taking a new tact focused on new strategies of innovation, technology and collaboration.”
Some of the report’s findings and recommendations included:
• A lack of coordination between the CDVA and county veteran service officers in helping state veterans apply for benefits hinders its ability to increase veterans’ participation in federal disability compensation and pension benefits. Coordination among county, state and federal veteran agencies must improve.
• California is below average in the numbers veterans receiving federal benefits. In part this is the result of the federal government being behind in processing claims. The average claim turnaround time for services is 160 days. There is also a lack of awareness about the services and programs offered because the CDVA does not have a strong outreach program. The CDVA provides few direct services to veterans outside of its veteran homes and CalVet Home Loan Program.
• The CDVA needs to address the growing housing problem facing many veterans. An increase in homeless shelters, transitional housing with services and multifamily rental housing is essential to meet the needs of California’s growing veteran population.
The report said that 12.86 percent of the state’s veteran community receive compensation and pension benefits. The national average is 13.94 percent.
Puntillo said the CDVA’s goal is to reach 15 percent in the near term.
The compensation gap is greater when California is compared with other states with large veteran populations, such as Texas and Florida, which have participation rates of 16.73 percent and 14.88 percent, respectively.
Department officials said contributing to this disparity is that both states have larger veteran service staffs relative to their veteran populations.
At the time of the audit, Texas had one county veteran service staff member for every 5,684 veterans. Florida had one for every 8,407 veterans while California had one per every 9,577 veterans.
But according to six county veteran service heads interviewed for the report, including the one in San Diego, the major hurdle blocking California veterans from applying for benefits is lack of knowledge.
Simply put, veterans don’t know what they are eligible for.
Another barrier is the complexity of the claims process. The application package is 23 pages long, including seven pages of instructions and a 16-page, four-part application with an authorization and consent form for releasing information to the federal VA.
In addition to the application, veterans submitting disability claims must provide several types of information, including medical records and evidence of disability.
According to the deputy secretary of Veterans Services, depending on the nature of a veteran’s medical history, this could include from tens to hundreds of additional pages. Veterans’ lack of knowledge of certain qualifications and documentation requirements may lead them to submit incomplete claims, which can add to the time it takes for the federal VA to process their claims.
The audit reviewed six counties – Butte, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Solano — and found that Los Angeles may have the greatest potential for increasing veterans’ federal disability compensation and pension benefits.
Of the counties audited, veterans there had the lowest rate of participation in federal benefits — almost 2 percentage points lower than the state’s average of 11.77 percent as of September 2007 — and the largest number of veterans not receiving such benefits.
Los Angeles County also has the greatest number of veterans with disabilities, which is an indicator of veterans’ potential need for disability compensation benefits.
Specifically, more than 32,000 Los Angles County veterans were receiving disability compensation benefits as of September 2007, while the U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that there were nearly 100,000 veterans with disabilities in the county during 2007.
Los Angeles County also has the largest number of veterans 65 years of age or older whose incomes during 2007 were below the poverty level defined by the U.S. Census Bureau in that year, which is an indicator of veterans’ potential need for pension benefits.
Specifically, a comparison of the number of veterans receiving disability pension benefits in the county, 6,092, to the number who may qualify for these benefits, 9,173, shows that there is additional potential for veterans services to focus its outreach efforts on veterans in this county and increase participation in disability pension benefits.
The complete report can be read at: http://www.bsa.ca.gov/pdfs/reports/2009-108.pdf
* Story originally published in mid-2010.
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