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At War With the VA

By Michael Courteau

 

August, 2012

I sat in the assisted-living apartment with my father and awaited her call. A field agent named Paige would phone any minute to inform us that she had arrived and would need directions to the apartment.

She was coming to ask my father and me a few questions and to have us sign a few forms. I was to be named the official Federal Fiduciary for handling more than $17,000 in retroactive benefits from the Veteran's Administration that had accumulated since we filed our claim for a Veteran's Pension and a Regular Aid and Attendance benefit in April 2011.

Paige, the field examiner, paid us a visit under the pretense of having us sign forms, but I surmise that the real motive for her visit was to determine whether or not there was a living, breathing veteran claiming the need for regular aid and attendance. In short, she came to rule out fraud.

 

It was clear to Paige, I'm sure, that my father's dementia was real, and it was painfully evident to her that he was non-ambulatory as he sat in his wheelchair and struggled to answer basic questions.

"Can you tell me what month it is, Roland?"

He thought about it for a few seconds before answering. "I guess I don't know."

"Can you tell me what year it is, Roland?"

"1986?" my father answered querulously.

"Can you tell me who the President of the United States is?"

"Obama," my father said immediately.

"Good," Paige said. "For some reason, people always get that one right."

I answered a few more questions on my father's behalf, signed a few forms and, after an interview that took no longer than twenty minutes, Paige was packing up to leave. "This is a case that has gone on too long," she said. "For some reason, it went to the Milwaukee Regional Office and now it's come back to St. Paul. I will enter the information into the computer on Monday naming you, Michael, as the fiduciary. You will need to go to a bank and set up a custodial account that you, and only you, have access to. With any luck, you should see the money in that account by mid-September. Here's my card. Call me if you have any questions."

I got my love of words from my father. Though he never went to college, he strived to fill the gaps in his knowledge by reading. He read each night before he went to bed and he would often tell me about the author's work. He would read middle-age dad stuff like James Michener and Ken Follett, but he would also make forays into more intellectual fare like Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo. He was also a natural story-teller. Often, on Saturday mornings after breakfast, my father would regale me with stories about his years in the navy. There was the one about being on an aircraft carrier during a typhoon and watching the thousand-foot ship bend from bow to stern. He would tell me about the oppressive heat in the Philippines and the kindness extended to him by the various Japanese people that he met.

My father served in the United States Navy from November 9, 1953 to September 25, 1957. Although my father never fought and was not wounded in war, his service to the country overlapped the Korean Conflict (it is not called a "war") by nearly two years enabling him to meet easily the first qualification for a Veteran's Pension. According to the Veteran's Administration website, "Generally, a Veteran must have at least 90 days of active duty service, with at least one day during a wartime period to qualify for a VA Pension. If you entered active duty after September 7, 1980, generally you must have served at least 24 months or the full period for which you were called or ordered to active duty (with some exceptions), with at least one day during a wartime period."

Meeting the first criteria, though seemingly easy, was not. In order for me to complete the initial application form, I had to know his dates of service, but due to his deepening dementia, he has difficulty remembering both important dates and where he has put things—even important documents like his DD214, the official Report of Separation from the Armed Forces of The United States.

We searched everywhere but were unable to locate his DD214. This would not be last time that I would have to conduct research about how to obtain vital information in order to complete a form on my father's behalf. I searched the Internet, which led me to the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC)—a unit of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). I submitted an on-line request for a copy of my father's DD214 in April of 2011 and received it in early June. It took about seven weeks. I was beginning to learn a valuable lesson about submitting a claim to the VA: things take time.

But meeting the wartime service requirements is not the only criterion to qualify for a veteran's pension. In addition, the Veteran must be:

Age 65 or older, ORTotally and permanently disabled, ORA patient in a nursing home receiving skilled nursing care, ORReceiving Social Security Disability Insurance, ORReceiving Supplemental Security Income

Again, my father easily met the first criterion in the bulleted list above, for when we commenced the application process, he was 76 years old.

This was only the first step. It was clear that my father qualified for a Veteran's pension based on the dates of his service and his age, but we discovered that he might also be eligible for a "Regular Aid and Attendance" benefit, the qualifications for which are outlined as follows:

The Aid & Attendance (A&A) increased monthly pension amount may be added to your monthly pension amount if you meet one of the following conditions:

You require the aid of another person in order to perform personal functions required in everyday living, such as bathing, feeding, dressing, attending to the wants of nature, adjusting prosthetic devices, or protecting yourself from the hazards of your daily environmentYou are bedridden, in that your disability or disabilities requires that you remain in bed apart from any prescribed course of convalescence or treatmentYou are a patient in a nursing home due to mental or physical incapacityYour eyesight is limited to a corrected 5/200 visual acuity or less in both eyes; or concentric contraction of the visual field to 5 degrees or less

As I noted previously, my father is non-ambulatory. He has suffered an inordinately high number of injuries throughout his life—the most debilitating of which came when he was struck from behind by a moving truck and his knee was crushed between the bumper and the concrete wall of a loading dock. His knee was never the same and, after many operations involving a veritable hardware store of metal plates, steel rods, and stainless steel screws, his knee was finally replaced when he was in his early sixties.

He was able to walk, sort of, for a few years, but he was never stable. Predictably, he has fallen countless times since his knee was replaced—including several somersaults down his home stairs—and this series of assaults resulted in two stints in a transitional care facility. But despite the best efforts of a number of physical therapists, he has been in a wheelchair since the fall of 2008.

Of course, it is not as though use of a wheelchair automatically precludes an individual from attending to his or her own care needs, but it can make it more of a challenge. Add dementia to the equation, and such mundane activities as bathing, feeding, dressing, and toileting oneself become extraordinarily difficult. For my father, the act of transferring from the wheelchair to the toilet and back is fraught with peril. And left to his own devices, he can no longer remember which kitchen implement opens a can. He cannot even remember how recently he has eaten, if at all, on any given day. Since my father's memory is significantly diminished, he has lost a sense of basic personal hygiene. He cannot seem to remember whether or not it's important to comb his hair or brush his teeth and, if he could remember, he would have difficulty remembering how to do it.

In short, he needs help.

I knew that I could make a convincing case that my father qualified for the first condition on the list above for the Regular Aid and Attendance benefit: "You require the aid of another person in order to perform personal functions required in everyday living, such as bathing, feeding, dressing, attending to the wants of nature, adjusting prosthetic devices, or protecting yourself from the hazards of your daily environment." But making the case, again, would take time.

I made numerous calls to the nursing staff at The Kenwood, his assisted living facility at the time, and I made many calls to his doctor's office to obtain any and all medical records that I thought might warrant our claim.

Then the correspondence with the VA began. It is difficult to convey how time consuming this process is. It took time away from my family, to say nothing of the emotional burden. An exhaustive, letter-by-letter chronicle would be difficult to produce and, perhaps, not necessary here. But each round of letters was usually followed by a four-to-six-week waiting period for the VA to respond to information sent or requested.

Then, on February 14 (Valentine's Day) of 2012, I received notice of my father's award. He would receive a monthly entitlement for both the Veteran's Pension and the Regular Aid and Attendance benefit totaling $1949 per month. In addition, he was entitled to receive retroactive benefits for each month from the initial claim date of April 25, 2011. I did the math, and it became clear that my father would receive more than $17,000.

We celebrated, but our ebullience was short lived.

According to the award notice letter from the VA, we could expect payment "in approximately 15 days." True to their word, we received the first benefit check from them in the amount of $2019—the additional $70 reflecting an annual inflation adjustment—on March 1, 2012. So, not only would my father continue to receive a monthly award, but also he would eventually get an additional $17,000 in retroactive benefits.

There was just one, small, catch, however: the VA was withholding the retroactive benefit "pending [their] review of [my father's] ability to manage [his] funds." In other words, one of the very reasons they awarded him the money, dementia, was now a reason to withhold those same funds. We had to wait nearly five months for the VA to complete its review. Finally, on July 2, 2012, my father received a letter stating: "We finished the review and decided that you are not competent for VA purposes."

This meant that my father would not receive the money since the VA deemed him incompetent to handle the $17,000 in retroactive benefits due to his dementia. Of course, the VA had already been sending the monthly benefit amount of $2019 for four months though they never offered a rationale for why someone deemed "incompetent" can handle the monthly benefit amount but not the retroactive amount. It would seem that a finding of incompetence ought to apply to any amount. Or, to put it another way, the amount shouldn't matter. Incompetence is incompetence.

At any rate, in order for the funds to be released, my father was required to appoint a fiduciary. Of course, it also begs the question how a veteran deemed "incompetent" would somehow be competent enough to appoint a fiduciary. Of course, my father hadn't executed any of this process. I had. So, in effect, I was the claimant, and now I had to appoint myself, in a sense, as the fiduciary—with my father's blessing, of course.

Unfortunately, in March of 2012, my parents and I had made a decision to move them out of The Kenwood into what we thought would be a more affordable assisted-living facility, Augustana Apartments. Though we had estimated the cost of their rent and care to be just barely affordable with their combined Social Security income and my father's new Veteran's Benefits, my parents still had debts accrued from fall of 2011 when their savings had dwindled, and now, in the spring of 2012, there were new debts mounting.

It was incumbent upon me to complete another round of VA forms in order to establish my parents' desire to appoint me as their fiduciary. Several years ago, my parents had appointed me their Power of Attorney, granting me legal power to handle all of their financial affairs including Veteran's Benefits, but even though I sent copies of the Power of Attorney documents to the Department of Veterans Affairs, they would not accept them in lieu of their own documentation and verification procedures.

November, 2012

Two military police stood between me and the entrance to the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building in St. Paul. One of them bade me empty my pockets and deposit their contents into a plastic tray before I passed through the metal detector. The other waited for me on the other side and, once he was satisfied that I was not bearing weapons, he returned my keys and cell phone and directed me to the third floor where the Pension Management Center was located.

I had called the Milwaukee VA Fiduciary Hub to inquire about the status of my father's retro benefits. The representative on the phone searched the data base, saw that my father was entitled to a retroactive reward and that I had been appointed the Federal Fiduciary, and said, "Hmm, from what I can tell, those funds should have been released by now. Let me put you on hold." After a long wait, the phone rep said that she and her colleagues could see no reason why the funds had not been released, but that I would have to call the Federal Pension Management hotline to inquire further.

I called them, and nobody there could figure out why the funds had not been released. They referred me to the Regional Office located in the Whipple Building in St. Paul.

After a short wait in the Pension Management Center lobby, a specialist emerged from deep within the bowels of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He invited me to an adjoining conference room and said, "I looked into your case, and it looks to be an easy one. The funds should have been released as soon as you were officially appointed the Federal Fiduciary, but for some reason they never were. I will go back to my office and put in an immediate request for the release of those funds."

"Do you mean to tell me that the funds were literally waiting for someone to click a button in order to be released?" I said.

"Essentially, yes," he said. "I apologize for the inconvenience, but like I said, this should be an easy fix."

"So how soon can we expect to see the money in the account?" I asked.

He paused, "I would think if you don't see them within a month," you should give us a call.

A month. We had initially applied for VA benefits on April 25, 2011 and then received notice of our award on February 14th, 2012 and now, during the second week of November, a representative from the VA was telling us that we would need to wait, possibly, for another month.

I felt both excited and worried after my trip to the Whipple Building. On the one hand, I finally met, face to face, with a live human being from the Veteran's Administration who had just assured me that the money would arrive soon. On the other hand, my entire experience with the VA had taught me that their wheels can turn very slowly, at times, if they are turning at all.

At last, on November 11, 2012, nearly nineteen months from the initial claim date and three days before Thanksgiving, $17,681 was deposited into the special account that Paige, the field representative, had instructed me to establish.

So what have I learned from this lengthy process? I have learned that if the VA requests information, send it as soon as possible. Since the entire process is so time-consuming and much of it out of one's control, any opportunity to expedite the process helps in the long run. A lot of little delays add up over the course of eighteen months.

I have also learned not to assume that the VA will stay true to its stated time frames. It is a vast bureaucracy, so there are many opportunities for a case to be mishandled as it passes from agent to agent, department to department.

That said, the Veteran's Pension, the Regular Aid and Attendance benefit, and other VA benefits are excellent. By filing a claim, we effectively doubled my parents' monthly income. This new revenue source enabled my parents to live in an assisted-living facility longer than they would have been able to otherwise. The additional monthly income helped pay for a variety of services that my father needed such as personal hygiene, toileting help, having food delivered to his apartment, and so on.

When I first told my father that he had been awarded Veteran's Benefits, he couldn't believe it. I would try to explain to him why he was receiving benefits by reminding him of his service during the Korean Conflict. He would simply shake his head in disbelief and say, "Well, I don't really understand it, but thanks for everything you do for me." Of course, after all the love and support my father has given me over the years, this was the least I could do for him.

And it still doesn't feel like I have done enough.

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