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Colorado veterans talk back
Revista de Fiesta, five-time GOLD winners at the NAHP 2017 Convention in Miami. Shown above, their publisher and his family Rafael, Mary, Jesica, Jennifer Villelia.

By James Mejía

This spring, President Trump released a budget that left many disabled and elderly veterans worried for their future. For unemployed disabled veterans, benefits would be cut once the veterans are eligible for Social Security. While some would consider the receipt of benefits from both Social Security and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) as double dipping, others believe veterans deserve any available benefits for years of military service.

Trump’s initial budget proposal could have affected over 300,000 veterans, reducing their benefits as much as $20,000 each, every year. Most of those affected are over the age of 60 and have a disability related to years in service. All told, individual disability unemployment was initially proposed to be reduced by $41 billion over the next decade.

In return, the Veterans Choice Program, allowing veterans to find healthcare in the private sector, would continue. Under that program, the VA would foot the bill for healthcare outside the Department of Veterans Affairs.

By July, veteran organizations had defeated the legislation in its initial form, releasing a joint statement that approved of the choice program but not at the expense of further improvements to the VA. The Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and four other veteran organizations fought successfully against the legislation, stating in a prepared press release, “We thank all those members who voted to reject this unacceptable legislation and call on them and all members of the House and Senate to work together, and with us, to quickly find a reasonable solution that we can all support…”

However, for George Autobee, Vietnam War veteran and historian, the budget proposal showed Trump’s cards to move toward elimination of the VA in favor of private sector health insurance. “They’ve been trying to shut it down for years. Even with hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure at a new VA hospital in Colorado and here they are trying to close it down. They are trying to set the stage for it.”

Autobee himself has a choice card, allowing him to go to a third-party vendor for some medical services, but there have been problems with billing and many predict that even with an increase in funding, the choice program will run out of money halfway into the fiscal year.

Veteran Carmen McGinnis works at the Disabled Veterans Administration offices in Lakewood. From her vantage point, even though the Choice program has expanded, she doesn’t feel full privatization is in the works, “I don’t think that’s where they are headed. We don’t support the push to privatize where veterans can go wherever for care. Instead, we want to make sure the VA is funded appropriately.” The retired Marine Staff Sargeant continued, “We believe it is important to have an integrated care network centered around the VA doctor. Besides direct services, the VA is a teaching and research hospital and any funding reduction would result in less access to care.” McGinnis has an expansive network of veterans, having served in Afghanistan, as well as in embassy security which took her to over 20 countries from France to Sri Lanka to Germany. Her primary concern is to ensure soldiers have access to services and accurate information regarding benefits and legislation affecting veterans.

Retired Staff Sergeant, Dean Sanchez serves as a Case Manager for a program helping veterans transition back to the US after military service. Though he tracks changes to VA benefits, there have been so many proposals that he tends to wait to see which direction comes to fruition. “As of now there hasn’t been much talk about changes to benefits. Vets have a lot to think about – networking for jobs, lodging, coming back to the real world with limited experience. Every time I have used the VA, we’ve been able to get services. I have figured out how to get the job done. We will deal with cuts or changes when they reach our level.”

Sanchez served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Everyone he knows has medical issues associated with time in the military, “Aches and pains, back is shot, knees are shot…” Despite all the politics and changes at the VA, Sanchez remains thankful and optimistic about veteran services through the agency. “My interaction with Veterans Affairs has been good. It is a good system but is overworked, and the case load is insane. As the country’s largest unified health system, maybe the biggest one in the world, it’s doing pretty good.”

Sanchez highlights positive changes to VA services like the recent solidification of funding through new GI Bill forever legislation. “If you serve for 4 or 19 years, your only guaranteed benefit is a home loan and the GI bill.”

The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, named after a World War I pilot who authored initial GI bill plans, and better known as the ‘Forever GI Bill,’ is an update to ensure veterans returning from service have more access to educational assistance. Rules regarding usage have been relaxed as have some strict time requirements. At a time when medical services are under the spotlight, this bipartisan legislation is seen as a bright spot that veterans have been able to count on. More than one million servicemen and women have used the GI Bill since 2008. New legislation was passed in August and signed by the President shortly thereafter.

One of Sanchez’ biggest concerns is the growing number of soldiers coming back with PTSD, a concern shared by Autobee. Autobee remembers how difficult it was to prove your disability and to establish your disability rating for conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “The burden of proof was on veterans until 1995. A lot of guys didn’t know how to prove their disability and let their disability ratings go. Disability rating turned into a fight.” With all the proposed changes to the VA, Autobee says veterans are gearing up for more battles to ensure they are taken care of when they come home from service.

Autobee pointed to other blind spots in receiving VA services like veterans from Special Operations being denied medical assistance because they can’t talk about what happened on confidential missions, or having bilingual assistance available for Spanish speaking veterans. He laments treatment of servicemen from other countries, “Foreign soldiers think they are getting citizenship but instead are getting deported for even minor infractions. When they are forced to leave the country, they lose benefits.”





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