GENEVA – U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield, hosted a veterans forum Friday morning at his Geneva district office to discuss the state of veterans affairs, including health care, mental health and surviving spouse benefits.
Julio A. “Tony” Vela, veterans service center manager at the Chicago Regional Benefit Office, spoke about how his office operates and how it has increased efficiency when it comes to processing claims. He said the regional office is now 94 percent paperless and that part of making the claims service more efficient was increasing the quality of the training program used with employees. Vela said the average wait time for processing a claim in the Chicago regional office is now 149 days.
The group of veteran service officers, representing each of the 14th Congressional District counties in Illinois, agreed that compensation and pension exams and examiners do not favor veterans, and there is a misunderstanding among such examiners as to the correct standard of proof needed to claim benefits.
Vela pointed out that the regional office often gets the blame, but he said the health care system is where the problem lies.
One process that Hultgren said needs to be streamlined is the communication of available programs and benefits to veterans.
Gene Klein, a Vietnam War veteran, talked about his experience of losing his partner while the VA benefit process dragged on. He said that after speaking to VA representatives he was told the claim no longer existed because the patient had become deceased.
Vela interrupted Klein and said that he was told the wrong information and that family members can pick up and continue claims in the name of their departed veteran.
“How many vets have died waiting on the process?” Klein asked. “The system is broken.”
Klein proposed the VA implement automatic approval of claims and appeals after certain time periods to force higher efficiency and ensure veterans receive the crucial aid they deserve. He said a policy such as that could alleviate the horror stories of veterans waiting three to five years for their appeals to be adjudicated.
After the meeting, Hultgren highlighted several things his office could do to assist veterans in his district and across the nation with federal legislation. He said after the Friday meeting and after visiting the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago that there were several things that concern him.
The appeals process – guaranteed to veterans, by law, who disagree with the initial claim decision – which can be slow, lack of communication on the exact process and services available, and inconsistent medical examinations are all issues that need to be addressed, Hultgren said.
The congressman said his office could step up with newsletters, emails and public events in the district to educate veterans on how to navigate the VA bureaucracy. He also pointed out how each state has its own VA problems and that blank checks and blanket solutions might not be the most efficient fixes. Hultgren said pilot programs for niche areas that test specific proposals were a good start and could then be expanded and used in larger areas.
And while Hultgren admitted Democrats and Republicans still argue about how to best address problems plaguing the VA, he said “there is an overarching commitment to get something done.”
The 14th Congressional District includes parts of McHenry, Lake, Will, DuPage, Kane, Kendall and DeKalb counties.