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Willmar, Minn.-area veterans provide input on VA backlog and Sen. Franken's proposed solutions

Military veterans from Kandiyohi County talk about the backlog of cases in the Department of Veterans Affairs during a meeting Thursday with staff from Sen. Al Franken’s office. Pictured are Dell Bjerketvedt, from left, Harley Capps, Lester Kaenel and Kandiyohi County Veterans Service Officer Trish Appeldorn. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR - Area veterans with a long history of military service and leadership roles in veterans groups weighed in on Sen. Al Franken's proposals to speed up the delivery of veterans' benefits, reduce the backlog of claims and make medical care for rural veterans more accessible.

Franken has introduced two bills to address those issues, which stem from a backlog of cases in the Department of Veterans Affairs and long delays in veterans receiving benefits.

Input from "on the ground" veterans will help Franken shape changes that will provide real help for veterans, said Marc Kimball, a staff member from Franken's St. Paul office who helped lead the meeting Thursday morning in Willmar, along with former Rep. Al Juhnke, of Willmar, who works as a member of Franken's Minnesota staff.

Most of the five veterans who attended the meeting were fairly pleased with the services, and the timeliness of receiving the benefits, when those claims were filed in Minnesota.

Minnesota is "well ahead of everyone else in the country," said Kimball.

But even in Minnesota it takes an average of 180 days for first-time claims to be processed, according to information provided by Franken's office. To qualify as a "backlog" case, the wait must be 125 days or more.

There are currently 600,000 veterans who are classified as backlogged in the VA system.

Kandiyohi County Veterans Service Officer Trish Appeldorn said veterans in other states can wait years before receiving any post-military benefits and some wait years to even get an appointment at the VA for routine care such as a dental exam.

Chad Chadderton said he "couldn't get jack for service" in Ohio. It was better in Minnesota but not perfect. Chadderton said he spent a month in the VA hospital but still had to wait five to six months to find out if he was approved for the claim. After he got the paperwork approving the claim, he had to wait another two months for the financial benefits to arrive.

Harley Capps, of Willmar, said he waited more than two years to hear from the Denver, Colo., office that one of his claims for a medical condition was denied.

In veterans' circles, the Denver VA office is known as "never-never land," said Capp, who worked for a time at the VA in St. Cloud, and provided some insider insight into the system.

Appeldorn said veterans who expect to use the GI bill to go to college are often caught off guard because the VA doesn't provide payments until February, even though school starts in August. She said Ridgewater College works with students in that situation, but it's still difficult for them to pay for rent and living expenses during the six-month wait for benefits.

She said it's frustrating when veterans quit school to go to work because of the delay.

Franken has introduced bills to deliver benefits more quickly to veterans and to improve health care access to rural veterans.

Franken is proposing to remove red tape by letting veterans see local doctors, rather than just VA doctors, for an initial diagnosis, and to create options for rural veterans to receive more care in their own communities.

Many rural veterans - including young vets who have jobs and older vets who have mobility issues - find it burdensome to travel to St. Cloud or the Twin Cities to the VA hospitals.

Juhnke asked the veterans if it would be helpful to have VA doctors come to Willmar, or to allow local doctors to provide diagnosis that would carry the same weight as a diagnosis of a VA doctor.

Capp said that could work if local doctors were certified by the VA in order to prevent potential fraud.

The bill also requires the VA to "swiftly award" interim benefits to disabled veterans based on their initial diagnosis while a VA review of the cases continues and to authorize VA to pay housing benefits under the GI bill in a more timely way.

Kimball said input from these veterans with first-hand experience will help Franken shape changes that will provide real help for all veterans. Similar meetings have been conducted in 20 communities across the state.

Progress is being made on the backlog but it "takes time," said Kimball, adding that Franken is determined to find ways for the VA to "keep its promises to veterans."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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