VA chief vows to work for the wounded
LANDSTUHL, Germany — Emerging from a meeting with injured troops at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ top official vowed Monday to work for the timely delivery of benefits to America’s “wounded heroes.”
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi spent more than an hour meeting with about 20 troops at the hospital in a brief stop on his way to Thanksgiving in Afghanistan.
Afterward, he spoke about the need to take care of soldiers wounded in the war on terrorism. Principi said he was heartened by the morale of the troops recovering at Landstuhl, and would work “to make sure that the VA takes care of them” when they separate from the military.
But the VA faces a massive task in trying to quickly funnel health benefits to troops recently wounded or disabled in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a letter to The Washington Post last month, Principi said his office receives more than 60,000 new benefits claims each month, and at any given time has more than 250,000 claims being processed.
The government’s second-largest agency also has come under fire for the amount of time it takes to process claims.
Working through the complicated separation and claims process can take months for separating troops, prompting the VA to expand its services in 2001 and begin its “seamless transition” initiative last year to streamline the VA processing procedure.
That initiative included efforts to improve communication between the VA and the Department of Defense, the addition of extra benefits counselors and internal VA moves to ensure that troops wounded in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom receive priority care.
“They’ve earned those benefits, and I want to ensure they get them,” Principi said.
The VA’s 2001 expansion of services has made a big difference to troops passing through the Landstuhl hospital, according to Jerl York, officer in charge for the seven-member VA staff at Landstuhl.
As of Tuesday, 20,802 troops have been treated at Landstuhl from injuries received in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
York said that the predischarge program available at Landstuhl allows separating troops to work through the claims process while still in Germany, allowing them to circumvent most of the ponderous VA central claims system, based in Washington, D.C.
“In the States, processing can take up to a year,” York said. But working through the Landstuhl program allows separating troops to receive benefits in as little as 60 to 100 days, he said.
“We can essentially write the award and the benefit starts flowing then,” he said.