Veterans' issues covered at Anchorage Senate field hearing

Photo/Michael Dinneen/AJOC

The discussion at an Aug. 23 Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs field hearing chaired by Sen. Mark Begich in Anchorage focused on how state and federal Veterans Affairs officials can work around logistics and seasonal challenges common in Alaska.

Southcentral Foundation President and CEO Katherine Gottlieb began testimony by discussing her organization’s agreements with the state Veterans Affairs office to expand health care coverage to rural communities.

An Alaska Native organization, the Southcentral Foundation manages Indian Health Service programs in its namesake Southcentral region of Alaska through the Nuka System of Care.

Gottlieb said the new agreements allow for Native and non-Native veterans to receive primary care at non-VA clinics across the state. She said the challenge is getting the word out to veterans that live in rural Alaska and making sure they identify themselves as veterans when they seek care.

Begich, who serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, questioned how long it will take to determine the positive and negative aspects of the program, such as whether or not all the groups involved are effectively communicating.

He added that the option is a “great addition” to the health care system in Alaska for veterans who may otherwise have to fly to Anchorage or Seattle for covered treatment they could have received closer to home.

Gottlieb said the Southcentral Foundation is proficient at collecting data to make any adjustments deemed necessary to streamline the program, but that it will also take time to raise awareness about the program itself.

“It’s going to take six months to two years to get the word out to make sure everybody knows they have (local) access,” she said.

Under Secretary for the federal Veterans Health Administration Dr. Robert Petzel said the Anchorage Veterans Affairs Regional Office has reduced its number for pending benefit claims and improved claims processing accuracy in recent months.

In January, the Office of the Inspector General issued a report that found Anchorage regional office staff had erred in processing 18 of the 38 disability claims it reviewed. The report, conducted in June 2012, stated that a “lack of management oversight resulted in staff delays in gathering evidence and processing old claims” at the Anchorage office.

In April 2012, 948 of the 2,004 disability claims pending at the office were older than the VA’s goal of handling claims within 125 days, according to the report.

In his testimony, Petzel said new quality assurance procedures that include an internal Quality Review Team have improved the accuracy of claims decisions from 81 percent in fiscal year 2012 to 83 percent today in Anchorage. The team conducts in-process reviews to prevent errors from negatively affecting a claimant’s benefits, he said. It also helps identify error trends, which can improve training methods for processors.

The agency’s goal for compensation rating-decision accuracy is 87 percent.

Also, as of May 15 of this year, VA made overtime mandatory for all claims processors and support staff to eliminate claims pending longer than one year, Petzel said.

“With (Veterans Benefits Administration’s) recent initiative to focus on the oldest claims in our backlog, I am pleased to report that the Anchorage regional office has no claims pending over two years and is on track to be one of the first offices in VBA to have no claims pending over one year,” he said.

Anchorage resident and Iraq War veteran Brandon McGuire provided insight to how the GI Bill could better serve veterans earning on-the-job training or an education in a professional trade.

McGuire is now a representative for the United Association’s Local 367 Plumbers and Pipefitters union in Anchorage. He testified that while enrolled in on-the-job training with the union he found the cyclical “feast or famine” nature of summer versus winter construction work in Alaska did not provide him with a steady income based on GI Bill requirements.

To receive full benefits a veteran must work for a minimum of 120 hours per month. Active duty veterans can earn up to $1,100 per month for the first six months of training and pay decreases for every six months of training after. If 120 hours is not reached in a month the pay is prorated for the time worked.

“There were several months where I would put in 220 hours and there were several months where I would put in zero,” McGuire told the senator.

He suggested a change to the bill to allow for work hours to accumulate over a longer period of time or be averaged per month so veterans could count on an income while training.

McGuire noted that college students receiving GI Bill aide do not track their class hours, but are paid if they meet grade standards.

Begich said McGuire’s suggestions are important because veterans entering the construction trades in other northern tier states almost certainly encounter similar challenges.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

09/12/2013 - 11:49am