St. Paul office has top claims-approval rate

St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)

St. Paul office has top claims-approval rateWomen and minority veterans in Minnesota weren’t applying for U.S. government benefits promised to them for injuries suffered in the service of their country. The same was true for Vietnam veterans with diabetes and for those whose injuries had worsened over the years.

So the state went out and found them.

Minnesota spends as much as $1 million a year to reach veterans who may have been injured during their service — to help them navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs’ behemoth bureaucracy and to keep tabs on the VA employees who determine whether compensation is deserved.

Mike Pugliesi, commander of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, considers it an investment.

According to the most recent VA annual benefits report for fiscal year 2003, Minnesota had 39,139 veterans receiving disability compensation and a federal payout on that compensation of $308 million.

More veterans say they are pleased with the VA in Minnesota than in any other state, according to an annual VA survey of veterans.

It’s no wonder. Veterans using the St. Paul regional office reported their claims were approved 89 percent of the time — the highest percentage among the VA’s 57 regional offices, according to a 2003 VA survey of veterans. (The number excludes claims that were pending at the time of the survey.)

The numbers reflect a philosophical change that evolved over the past decade, Pugliesi said. The regional office dropped the view that undeserving veterans were out to scam the system, and the adversarial relationship between the state and federal governments softened, Pugliesi said.

“Years ago, the attitude and the mind-set of trying to do what’s right by our veterans wasn’t exactly there,” Pugliesi said. But now, “the law says benefit of the doubt goes to the veteran. They adhere to that.”

To ensure that end, Pugliesi said the state veterans department serves as watchdog over the federal office in St. Paul. If a federal ratings representative routinely denies veterans’ claims, the state brings it to the attention of the director, Pugliesi said.

Vince Crawford, director of the VA’s regional office in St. Paul, refused repeated requests for interviews. In a written statement, he said the office approves or denies claims based only on the law. Those that are rejected lack medical evidence linking the disability to the veterans’ military service, the statement said.

For the small percentage of veterans whose claims are rejected each year, the appeals process can be frustrating and tedious at best, lawyers who appeal the denials say. With cases that have lingered in the VA’s appeal process more than five years, it is difficult to believe the St. Paul regional office has the best record for approving claims, said Minneapolis lawyer Tracy Capistrant.

One of her clients, Paul Gregor Jr., a National Guard reservist who injured his knees in 1993 while training for active duty in Corpus Christi, Texas, fits in both sides of St. Paul’s VA system. After 12 years of appeals, the VA approved his claim. In December, he was awarded a $108 monthly check and $12,000 for benefits he should have received while appealing his initial claim.

Still, Gregor, 43, continues to appeal the VA’s ruling because it found that only his right knee was cause for compensation. Gregor says he suffers from the same ailment — chondromalacia patella — in his left knee, which the VA has ignored. Doctors say they aren’t sure what caused the injury, but Gregor said he’s sure it’s related to the training. Just before he started, he said, he could run two miles in 15 minutes.

“Sometimes I feel like I want to give up and just say the heck with it — but with my kids, I can’t,” said Gregor, who lives in Arco, just west of Marshall, Minn., with his wife and four children.

Had a veterans’ representative with better knowledge of the system handled Gregor’s claim, his lawyer said, he might have received benefits earlier.

The state’s 87 counties each employ at least one representative — a veterans’ service officer — to handle the initial paperwork involved in a veteran’s benefits claim. Unlike many other states, Minnesota tests its service officers, certifies them every year and provides at least two training conferences a year, Pugliesi said.

The county representative hands off the claim to one of 15 representatives, employed by the state or a veterans organization, who will then argue the case before the regional office. The state is looking to hire at least two more representatives to handle the crush of claims, Pugliesi said.

In the meantime, the state VA continues to push more claims through the regional office.

Pugliesi said female and minority veterans received half the benefits paid to white male veterans. So the state hired a former police officer to find the veterans and help them apply for benefits.

Since he started visiting barbershops, churches and social workers in September, Reggie Worlds said he has signed up 23 veterans.

Two years ago, using a computer database of veterans it had compiled, the state tried to find Vietnam veterans who might have developed Type 2 diabetes through exposure to Agent Orange.

The next veterans the state plans to contact are those with gunshot wounds. Errors were made when the veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam were first evaluated and the veterans may be due more money.

“We’re going to find every reason why we should grant, versus any reason we should deny,” Worlds said.


Number of veterans in Minnesota: 420,000

VA regional office: Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building, 1 Federal Drive, Fort Snelling. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. 800-827-1000.

Minneapolis VA Medical Center: 1 Veterans Drive, Minneapolis. 612-725-2000.

St. Cloud VA Medical Center: 4801 Veterans Drive, St. Cloud. 320-252-1670.

Two years ago, using a computer database of veterans it had compiled, the state tried to find Vietnam veterans who might have developed Type 2 diabetes through exposure to Agent Orange.

Beth Silver can be reached at or 612-338-6516.

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