| Veterans Help Other Veterans Navigate the Complicated Benefits Application ProcessThe Bronx Ink

Posted October 23, 2022.

The veterans of the 23rd chapter of the DAV. A veteran wears a leather vest that reads: DAV Chapter 23, Bronx NY. Francesca Tiana for Bronx Ink.

Every Wednesday, Richard Castellano meets four of his friends at Patricia’s restaurant in Morris Park. Friends have a lot in common. They are all of Italian-American descent and are all Vietnam War veterans. They enjoy food and wine and discuss the trip back to Italy to obtain citizenship. Castellano says they hope to retire there, like the Americans do in Florida.

Castellano and his friends have something else in common. Each month, they attend a meeting of the 23rd American Veterans with Disabilities Chapter in the Bronx. The DAV, along with the national service officers it employs, is primarily known for assisting veterans with applications for disability benefits filed with Veterans Affairs.

The goal of the monthly meetings is “to get as many people as possible, new, young, old, whatever, to come and tell them what we do and why we do it,” Castellano said.

Veterans who become disabled as a result of their service are entitled to benefits. Veterans claim benefits for conditions ranging from cancer to diabetes to tinnitus. Depending on the illness and the request, Veterans Affairs will assign a disability rating of 0-100%.

“If you went to a normal doctor coughing and sneezing, he would tell you you have the flu. If a veteran goes to a doctor, he tells him he has 30% flu,” Castellano said with some sarcasm.

This rating determines the amount of benefits awarded to the veteran, which can range from prescription drugs to compensation for them and their dependents.

But applying for and receiving these benefits can be difficult, especially without the help of the DAV.

“Our goal is to get them from point A to point B in a straight line – that’s not all referred here, skip them here…that’s where they get discouraged,” Castellano said.

The AV has a list of conditions that are presumed to be related to the service, called “presumptive”. It is relatively easy to get benefits for these conditions. Often a veteran’s condition is not on this list. DAV helps them find a way around this.

Judy Russell is one of only two employed national service officers who serve with the 23rd DAV Chapter in the Bronx as well as New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas – the others are DAV volunteers. Russell is herself a veteran, who served as a doctor. Russell helps veterans grapple with the complex guidelines laid out by the VA and gather evidence to back up their claims.

When Castellano filed a claim for bladder cancer, he associated it with his service at Camp Lejeune. The VA provided treatment but did not pay Castellano’s benefits because the bladder cancer was not listed as presumptive. Castellano then filed a claim for prostate cancer which he linked to exposure to Agent Orange. It was a presumptive condition and he received benefits.

About a year and a half ago, the AV announced that they were going to consider the bladder and prostate together as presumptive because they are in a similar area of ​​the body. To make up for the years Castellano should have received benefits for his bladder cancer, Russell was able to claim retroactive compensation on his behalf dating back to when the VA began treating Castellano for bladder cancer. Together they won the case.

The DAV advocates for veterans in a way that the VA cannot. The VA is a government agency, while the DAV is dedicated to serving veterans and single veterans.

“I have guys who fight for 8 years on a claim, I do it in 6 months,” Castellano said, referring to the time it takes for a claim to be approved when it is processed by the Go alone.

Russell also described a case that happened during the pandemic. In Michigan, a veteran’s widow had been denied dependency and severance pay. According advantages.gov, “Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is a tax-free monthly benefit paid to eligible survivors of military personnel who die in the line of duty or to eligible survivors of veterans whose death results from injury or ‘a service-related illness.’ In this case, the condition listed on his death certificate, COPD, was not what he was logged into the service for. However, the veteran suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Russell was able to link his condition to the veteran’s service by proving, through a written statement given by the widow, that his PTSD caused a smoking habit that exacerbated his COPD which caused his death. Therefore, the disease that caused the death of the veteran was related to his service, and his widow was compensated.

Veterans can also use a “buddy system” to provide proof of their claims. In other words, a veteran who served with the applicant can verify their application. Castellano encourages veterans to maintain relationships with other veterans after their service is over for this vital reason.

When claims are denied, it’s not always the end. Sometimes they’re turned down on a technicality: “No doesn’t mean no, it means no now…because you didn’t put a comma after a word,” Castellano said. If the claims are denied, a formal appeal is eventually filed, which can take three to five years. “If all the evidence is there and they still say no, you have to find something else,” Castellano said.

For veterinarians who receive their health care through the VA Medical Center, filing claims can be especially difficult. Physicians may be “reluctant to help the veteran tie things together, because they work for the VA, they fear their work will come under scrutiny,” Russell said.

Veterans can appeal if they feel they have been wrongfully denied benefits. Russell’s own brother won the case after a nine-year appeal process.

Hung Szeto has been represented by the 23rd DAV Chapter for many years. Szeto served in Southwest Asia during Desert Storm 1991 as a mobilized Navy reservist. After 9/11, Szeto served as a mobilized national guard in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Szeto said he suffered from head trauma, underwent lower and upper spine surgery, surgery on both knees, both feet, shoulder and eye, removal shrapnel and an unexplained chronic cough severe enough to induce vomiting. Szeto’s disability rate took nine years to go from 10% at the start to 100% today.

Since June 2022, the VA has a back of 148,507 claims in total. This number was 100,000 or less until the pandemic, when it jumped to over 200,000 in June 2020. This number does not include claims that have been appealed. Almost a decade ago, in March 2013, the VA had a backlog of 611,073 claims.

A report by the Government Accountability Office, published in September, found that “interviews with claims processors suggest that they assess claims for these conditions inconsistently based on inaccurate interpretations of VA’s claims handling procedures” . In particular, the GAO observed an inaccurate interpretation of the application date of the one-year manifestation period required for the conditions to be presumed to be Agent Orange-related.

According to the report, “the VA guidelines do not clearly address these issues,” which could lead to incorrect application of the one-year protest period and “may inappropriately deny benefits to some Vietnam veterans.” “.

Existing research suggests that when a person is exposed to Agent Orange, they would develop these conditions within about a year. Elizabeth Curda, the author of the GAO report said: “No one has looked a longer period of time, that doesn’t mean research doesn’t exist or couldn’t exist that would say something different. It is what it is – it is the state of knowledge as it is.

This GAO report is the second in two years that addresses concerns with the claims processing system as set out by the VA. The first was released in December 2020.

“We’ve made real progress in speeding up the time it takes to deliver benefits to veterans,” VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said in an email.

Hayes did not respond directly to the GAO’s findings and the possibility of unwarranted denial of claims or work performed by national service officers.

He addressed the time it has taken to process claims, an issue that has dominated conversation surrounding the VA since the backlog of claims peaked again in 2021.

“Over the past year, we’ve dramatically increased claims automation, hired more than 1,600 claims processors, and invested heavily in increasing the number of military personnel records we proactively scanned across our systems.”

Castellano said veterans are often discouraged from seeking care while in service because “we’re taught to be warriors and suck at it.”

“It’s not that they (veterans) are looking for money – they got it wrong,” he said.

“You can get all the money back, give me back my health.”

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