Veterans give official an earful
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- West Virginia's elected officials, the state Department of Veterans Assistance and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs need to do a better job communicating with each other to better serve the needs of the state's veterans, according to veterans who spoke at a public meeting in Beckley Wednesday.
Rick Thompson, West Virginia's new secretary of veterans assistance, kicked off a statewide "listening tour" in Beckley, which he hopes will help him better understand and serve the state's more than 170,000 veterans and also make veterans aware of what the department can do.
"I wanted to learn as much as I could from my fellow veterans as fast as I could," Thompson said. "One of the main goals of this is to get the word out about the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance."
Thompson emphasized veterans' hospitals, Workforce West Virginia and the GI Bill and other higher education programs as services available to the state's veterans.
"Only 40 percent of our veterans are taking advantage of higher education benefits," Thompson said. "My job as secretary is to make sure I can get veterans using our services."
Ellis Vest, of Beckley, was one of about 15 veterans who attended the meeting at the Raleigh County Commission on Aging. He spoke about his frustration with the VA's delays in processing his disability claims and appeals.
Vest, who said he has post traumatic stress disorder and is classified as 90 percent disabled, said he has contacted all his elected officials and has no complaints about how he's been treated, but it's not getting him anywhere closer to getting benefits he says he's entitled to.
"You put everything together and you hurry up and wait, you just wait," Vest said.
In applying for benefits available to him, Vest is already ahead of many veterans.
"For a long time I dealt with the stigma of asking for help, until one guy told me it took the courage of a warrior to ask for help," Vest said. "Some guys don't even have the first idea how to file a claim."
Ray Erskine, of the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter from White Sulphur Springs, spoke on behalf of eight other veterans who could not attend the meeting.
They wanted explanations for the lengthy delays in benefit updates and claim responses. Erskine also suggested more general medical training for people who interact with veterans so that if somebody, for example, files a claim for diabetes, the benefit associate might also ask if they have related health problems, like hypertension.
Erskine described the state's veterans services as fair, but said they could certainly be better and the improvements need to come soon.
"We're Vietnam veterans, we don't have so much longer. Everyday someone is dying," he said. "With all of the things we've been through, why is the government putting us off? It didn't put us off when we were drafted."
Katie Erskine works to teach veterans in Monroe, Clay and Greenbrier Counties about how health care will change under the Affordable Care Act.
She said the most important thing to know is that health coverage received through the VA does count as insurance coverage for the purposes of the ACA's insurance mandate, so nothing has to change for veterans who are currently covered or eligible for coverage.
But children and spouses of veterans will need to get insurance if they don't already have it, either through the state's Medicaid expansion, or from private insurance purchased on the state exchange.
Thompson will hold four more "listening tour" events. They will be:
* Today at 1 p.m. at American Legion Post 177, 6024 U.S. 60 East in Barboursville.
* Sept. 18 at 5 p.m. at VFW Post 673, 430 West Pike St., in Clarksburg.
* Sept. 19 at 4 p.m. at American Legion Post 14, 125 West Race St., in Martinsburg.
* Sept. 26 at 4 p.m. at American Legion Post 3, 800 1st St., in Moundsville.
Veterans, veterans' organizations and military families are encouraged to attend.
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.