June 02, 2011

Vets voice concerns | The Martinsburg Journal

MARTINSBURG - Veterans got to voice their concerns and questions Wednesday, thanks to a local meeting organized by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and staffed by his employees.

The Martinsburg session was one of eight being held across the state on Wednesday and continuing today.

About 30 veterans attended locally and several of them spoke on a number of issues, including how benefit eligibility is determined, how long it takes to process a claim and where to find help for dealing with military sexual trauma.

Some questioned how recent changes at the Martinsburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center will impact post-traumatic stress disorder counseling sessions, adding that the need for better communication there is still an ongoing issue.

But in the end, those individuals also acknowledged the quality of care they'd received at the local VA facility and its superiority compared to similar facilities.

Martinsburg resident Greg Arpin, who did have some other administrative concerns, also praised this care there, saying, "From the person serving the meal to the doctors, it was the best treatment. ... I really got great care at the Martinsburg VA."

Several agency representatives also were part of the morning's program and provided audience members with updates on available services, especially the role of technology to help veterans access their health care records and manage their medical needs online.

Martinsburg VA public affairs representative Richard Nappi discussed the "My HealtheVet" program, which uses technology to help facilitate the delivery of services and communication with veterans.

He said the online program provides access to personal and health care information to veterans as well as their care teams.

Its website can be viewed at www.myhealth.va.gov.

Derek Brown, a vocational rehabilitation and employment officer with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs based in Huntington, said his agency is now recognizing disabilities linked to herbicides such as Agent Orange.

"Effective October 2010, VA Secretary Shinseki established additional presumptive service-connected disability benefits for veterans who are diagnosed with ischemic heart disease, Parkinson's disease and hairy cell leukemia," Brown said.

In order to qualify, "a veteran had to serve on land or inland waters in the Republic of Vietnam and be in one of a few limited units in Korea on the demilitarized zone when herbicides were used," he said.

That inclusion is important because there are now 15 diseases linked to herbicide exposure in Vietnam, Brown said.

Consequently, the VA is now reopening previously denied claims for these three newest disabilities associated with Agent Orange and attempting to grant retroactive benefits to veterans or their surviving family members, he said.

"This requirement involves reviewing all claims filed or denied since 1985 for these three conditions," Brown said.

Nationally as of last month, nearly 80,000 claims have been readjudicated and more than $920 million paid to veterans and their families due to the three disabilities that are now able to be service-connected, he said.

"In Huntington alone, we have readjudicated over 2,400 claims and paid out over $80 million since October 2010," Brown said.

Technology also is being used in this agency, according to Brown, who said the VA plans to be paperless in claims processing by 2012.

"This year we began our first paperless claims website for Agent Orange disability claims where veterans and their doctors can upload documents directly to the VA rather than mail them," Brown said.

By:  Jenni Vincent