Veterans don’t know they’re eligible for benefits
For years, Glen Davis’ left ear has been ringing and his hearing deteriorating, a problem that lately has started in his right ear.
The Silt retiree believes the origin of his hearing loss was his Air Force service as a weapons control system mechanic during the Vietnam War, working on F-4 jets as others took off beside him.
“We weren’t required to wear any hearing protection,” he said of his training in Arizona and time stationed in Japan and South Korea. “I could hear fairly well until about 15 years ago.”
Now on a fixed income, “I was checking on costs of hearing aids, and they’re so expensive. It could be $2,000 an ear for me,” he said.
So when he read in the Post Independent that the Veterans Administration was having an open house at its telemedicine office in Glenwood Springs, he showed up to find out about eligibility. It was his first contact with the VA since getting out of the Air Force in 1970.
It’s common, VA officials say, for veterans who are eligible for benefits to have not contacted the system or to not realize they could get help. At Monday’s open house, attended by about 15 veterans, another vet told Paul Sweeney, chief of public affairs for the Grand Junction Veterans Health Care System, that he was undergoing chemotherapy but didn’t think he could get benefits. Sweeney encouraged him to find out, even to just see if he could get mileage reimbursement.
“A lot of guys don’t think about it until they get to retirement age,” Sweeney said. “We get people who walk in with $19, $20,000 in medical bills” who didn’t realize their veterans benefits would have covered it.
Cathy Evans, a veteran herself who screens others for eligibility in her Grand Junction office, including by remote video with people at the Glenwood clinic, said she didn’t realize she could get care at the center where she works until she had been there a year. She and her husband’s income was too high when they lived in California, so they didn’t check when they moved and took lower-paying jobs.
“I see that relief every day” when veterans are told they are eligible for VA care.
Veterans can be eligible by income, if they have a service-connected disability, if they served in Vietnam and a handful of other special situations, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal neurological disease that, for unknown reasons, strikes veterans at twice the rate as the rest of the population.
“They don’t explain all that” about eligibility when people leave the military, Evans said, and it’s an especially acute problem for vets now at retirement age.
“There was a real disconnect between the DOD (Department of Defense) and VA after Vietnam,” she said.
Now, with more than 2 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan returning to civilian life and a range of ailments including post-traumatic stress disorder common among them, grassroots and government outreach is stepping up — even as the numbers are bound to challenge an already-troubled system.
The Western Slope Veterans Coalition, based in Grand Junction and Carbondale, will begin quarterly meetings at the Glenwood Springs library, and next month hopes to begin weekly coffee sessions.
The Grand Junction VA center conducts outreach efforts across western Colorado, visiting remote locations such as Telluride and Redstone within the past year, said Sweeney and Marc Magill, director of the Grand Junction Veterans Health Care System. Magill said efforts to connect with female veterans are important because that’s the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population.
When Congress responded to the 2014 VA scandal tied to false records and at least 40 veterans who died while they languished on wait lists for care, it created the Choice program, allowing vets living 40 miles or more from a clinic to get care from an outside provider. Magill said Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Michael Bennet successfully changed the bill to include more veterans in rural areas like the Western Slope.
Sweeney said he thought the scandal raised awareness of VA services, but continued outreach is critical.
“We regularly see vets who have never been seen before” in the health system, he said.
Davis, the Silt Air Force veteran, has an appointment next month to start determining his eligibility and needs, and said he was very encouraged by what he learned.
“It was a very positive experience,” he said. “I didn’t even know they were in there,” referring to the Glenwood Telehealth Clinic.
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