County Vets' Office Makes Veterans "Jump Through Hoops" For Service
Fayette County, PA requires bank account numbers and other unnecessary information before they will help a vet file a claim.
The veteran had written to me weeks earlier to ask about filing a claim for hearing loss. He's a Vietnam vet and told me it was time for hearing aids...he was tired of his wife telling him that he needed them. He had his Service Medical Records (SMRs) that reflected numerous sick calls during his active duty. Even on active duty it had been noted that his hearing was damaged by work on a busy flight line. He delayed filing over the years, fearful that he may be taking away benefits from another veteran who needed the help more than he did.
I advised him to carefully read my Veterans Benefits Guide to learn how to file this simple claim for himself. It isn't difficult. You complete the VA Form 21-526 and supply the basics and put it in Certified Mail with Return Receipt Requested. Once the Regional Office (RO) has it, they'll set the date of receipt as the start date of any benefits when the compensation amount is determined and awarded and during the adjudication process they'll notify the veteran of any required data.
The veteran is retired from a civilian occupation where he was severely injured on the job. He takes a lot of pain relievers and he decided he may need some help, just to be sure that his application was correctly done. He took more of my advice and went to see a local County Veterans Service Officer (CVSO) near his home.
He told me that the CVSO who helped him seemed unsure of himself. He said that the CVSO shuffled through some papers, started to complete a VA Form 21-526, changed his mind and handed him a sheet of paper with a list of documents he would need to bring back before anything else could happen.
Our veteran left the county office and returned home where he read over the requirements to file his claim. He became concerned when he saw a lot of financial data that was required including checking account numbers, bank routing numbers, checking account balances, and the request for an accounting of CD's, IRAs, Stocks, Bonds and so on. (Document is available here for viewing or download.)
He couldn't understand why they needed any of this so he contacted me by email again. "Jim", he said, "I apologize for bothering you again. I went to my counties NSO. He gave me a sheet of items I need to bring in to start the claim process. I am going to copy it and attach it to this email to get your opinion if what he is asking for is really what I need. The reason I ask is some items I did not see in the VBG (Veterans Benefits Guide) on the web site. I am filing for disability. Basically, my hearing tests on my entrance exam where well within the range of normal, with no notations about it. My hearing exam just prior to discharge shows hearing loss as severe in right ear and moderate in left ear both stated as permanent. Is what he is asking for relevant to my claim for disability?"
I was sure I'd misunderstood something as I went back to review all of his correspondence as well as the laundry list he'd been handed by the CVSO. Maybe he told them pension rather than disability compensation?
No, that wasn't the case. He understood just what he was doing, had read up on it and was ready to be helpful with his case. He even had his SMR's, a dream veteran for most any VSO. All that was needed was to complete the VA Form 21-526, include the copies of the SMR, deliver that to the RO and sit back and wait.
I called the Fayette County, PA Veterans Affairs office the next business day. I was fortunate that the boss answered the phone himself. Mr. Wayne Coddington clearly identified himself as the director and was happy to answer any of my questions.
Mr. Coddington stood by the form his office used. He advised me that I might not be completely up to date with all the new requirements of the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) but that there were a LOT of forms to be completed.
He didn't want to hear me say that wasn't a fact. The fact is that to begin a claim for disability compensation with the DVA doesn't even require a form. The veteran only need to express to a responsible representative of the DVA that he desires to make a claim for disability compensation. That "utterance" will begin the informal claim and set the all important date that will eventually be the date of the benefit.
He argued his point with me. Mr. Coddington's reasoning centered on, "That's how we do it in this office. It was how it was done when I got here and I've done it that way since. If the veteran wants it done differently, the VFW isn't far away."
Pointing out that there was no requirement, not ever, for any financial information when filing a claim for disability compensation didn't influence his thinking. I asked if those requirements were a standard used throughout the Pennsylvania CVSO system and he replied, "I don't know. It's what we use here."
I agree that eventually, if a claim is awarded a monetary benefit, the DVA will send the veteran a letter asking for banking account information so that an electronic deposit may be set up. The veteran usually does that directly with the DVA and has no interaction with any VSO. It doesn't take a lot to understand that the fewer people who ever hold that important data, the safer you are.
I asked how secure the information was if and when it was handed over to the Fayette County Veterans Affairs Office. Mr. Coddington assured me that he used secure computer systems to send the information directly to the DVA. You may know that financial and personal data in the hands of the DVA hasn't proven to be very secure in recent memory. The DVA was recently required to pay out a reminder of that to the tune of twenty million dollars.
I asked what would happen to all the paper the veteran was required to bring in? He couldn't completely answer just how secure the paper information that remained in his office would be.
There are two errors here.
First, the probing and digging for such detailed information from a veteran is wrong on the face of it. Such information isn't necessary and to require it as a matter of routine is to place the veteran at risk for identity theft. To be so insistent that the veteran must deliver that personal data prior to beginning a claim raises suspicions that there may be other motives for wanting it.
No veteran should be denied assistance when such assistance hinges on requirements above and beyond those set by the DVA.
Second, Veterans Service Officers are paid good salaries and benefits to help veterans file claims. In this case, the Fayette County office, under the direction of Mr. Wayne Coddington, has set up unnecessary barriers that will circumvent filings and delay those all important start dates. There wasn't a single item on that list that would be required by the DVA to begin the process of a claim for disability compensation for hearing loss for our Vietnam veteran. The fact is that the one item that would have been a priority, the VA Form 21-526, isn't on the list.
If a man of color came in to vote, he was required to complete a 4 page form that was so arcane and so detailed that few were able to understand it or complete it. Much like our veteran, the black man who wanted to vote was stopped by the obstacles thrown in front of him. There was no such requirement for whites and the system worked well for those who were in power.
The Veterans Service Officer system constantly proves that it doesn't work. There are dozens upon dozens of organizations, many funded by taxpayer dollars, that lack any oversight or control. There are no recognized standards of education and training and no requirements for continuing education. Employees set up their own shops and have no particular reason to try to achieve a national standard of service. It's strictly a "let the buyer beware" world when choosing a representative. I'd advise that you are very careful in Pennsylvania.
When I asked Mr. Coddington just how many people he thought took that piece of paper, went home and were overwhelmed by it and didn't return, his only response was, "I have no idea."
I didn't ask if he cared. I think I know.