Oversight commission approves restructuring agency to improve care for Oklahoma veterans

A restructuring plan calls for putting a service officer in each of the seven veterans centers in Oklahoma and four regional directors to provide more oversight of the state's Veterans Affairs Department.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: September 14, 2012
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The commission overseeing the state Veterans Affairs Department approved a plan Thursday restructuring the agency, which includes a more aggressive approach to make sure Oklahoma's veterans are getting federal benefits owed them.

About 52 percent of the nearly 1,400 veterans in the state's veterans centers are receiving money from nonmilitary service-connected pensions, James Pass, the agency's veterans service officer, told members of the War Veterans Commission during Thursday's special meeting.

Maximizing the federal benefits paid to veterans in the veterans centers could increase the state's allocation from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department by about $1 million a month, he said. The state Veterans Affairs Department receives about $4.2 million a month to care for veterans.

John McReynolds, interim executive director of the state Veterans Affairs Department, said the extra federal funds would be used to make improvements at the center, buy equipment and increase salaries of nurses and medical staff to be competitive with those offered by the private sector.

“We can do things with that money and put it right back into the veterans centers and put their quality of life as good as we can possibly make it,” he said.

The increased federal payments also would help veterans' spouses, many of whom are using money from pension plans or their own retirement plans to pay for a part of the veterans' care, Pass said.

Pass made an inquiry into each of the veterans centers, which showed that claims are not being properly developed, he said. The only claims being filed in the centers are nonmilitary service-connected pensions.

Veterans in the centers are not receiving the federal benefits they are entitled to because of the underdeveloped claims, he said. The veterans centers are failing to submit proper claims based on the veteran's disability history.

And some veterans don't provide information or seek all the benefits they're owed, he said.

“They're a proud group of people,” Pass said.

Veterans are being denied service-connected compensation because they are not showing up for scheduled examinations or their claims are being denied because they are not responding to requests for information.

Veterans at the centers read their own mail and have difficulty understanding what is being asked of them from the federal veterans agency, he said. They often can't get the guidance they need from admissions workers or other staff at the center.

“These letters are not easy to understand.”

In some cases, veterans don't open the letters. “If you don't answer the mail, you're going to get denied,” Pass said.

About the plan

Commissioners approved a plan that would place a service officer in each of the veterans centers who would work with veterans and staff to make sure veterans submit their service records, including any injuries while serving in the military, to the U.S. Veterans Affairs.