Thomas W. Stoddert, US Army Retired, is right on every point and I applaud his courage to write a very exacting letter.  My tenure at Madigan Army Medical Center as the NCOIC of the Department of Medicine made me aware of mismanaged policies and management issues.  I worked with a wonderful staff of professionals and paraprofessionals who conducted themselves very appropriately and courteously, with politeness, knowledge, experience and timeliness.  However, all of our efforts were frequently clouded by the frustrations of personnel shortages, ancillary demands of personnel, frustrations secondary to multi-echelon mismanagement issues, and numerous other problems.

The Department of Medicine includes 13 separate sections, clinics, and sub-departments, each with specific medical missions comprised of doctors, PA's, nurses, medical technicians, and support personnel, including military and civilian staff.  Some clinics have direct access through central appointments while many others required a referral from the primary care provider.  All too often miscommunication between various services and ancillary personnel would complicate scheduling problems.  An appropriate example: Patient "A" might be scheduled to see doctor "Z" in a specific clinic, but Dr. Z had to cancel all appointments because he/she had to support another military mission somewhere else on post or deploy to another country.

Frequently, the appointment schedule confusion was not because of medical staffing, but due to Central Appointments or Tri-Care issues for providing less than appropriate information to the patient and the provider.  Regardless who was at fault, the senior enlisted member of each clinic, section or department always tried to resolve relevant matters at the lowest level before involving the members of the Patient Representative Office and Patient Affairs Office. 

As the NCOIC or the department, I coordinated with the Patient Representative Office and Patient Affairs Office and designed placard's which identified the OIC and NCOIC of each clinic, section and department with a current photograph and a customer service statement bent on resolving problems or complaints at the lowest level.  The commanding general at the time accepted the design and ordered that it be implemented throughout the hospital.  The implementation was done in 2000 and I hope it is still in place. I am confident that the NCO's and OIC's at each level are fully capable of resolving conflicts and complaints, providing they get support from the senior management of medical care at Madigan Army Medical Center.

On the other hand, I and many others have all too often witnessed many frustrated and dissatisfied patients and family members who lack the patience to allow the system to work as it is designed.  These patients complain every chance they get and they become very loud and ugly about it, making treats, breaching the chain of command, and writing letters and memos to anyone who will listen.  The members of the Patient Representative Office and Patient Affairs Office do everything possible to bring providers and patients to a equitable arrangement, resolve appointment conflicts and ultimately bend-over-backwards.  Still, the patient complains and will ultimately use the same tactic every time they feel the need, regardless of how well or how often they have been treated with the same professional level of care that all patients and family members are given.

I am not blind and I do not wear rose colored glasses.  I know there are problems with the management of care at Madigan Army Medical Center and other military medical facilities.  However, there is no single mission in the military service that is as resource intensive as the medical mission on a daily basis.  Then the medical facilities must comply with and satisfy military and civilian laws, protocols, standards, inspections, and funding agencies.  All of this while still supporting the military missions of deployments, training, education, reassignments, and command emphasis issues. 

So, yes, a problem exists, but it will take the collective initiative of the soldier's at each facility to make the improvements, with the support of the Army Medical Corp senior management and mass influence of money and personnel.

Alan B. Candia
U.S. Army (Ret.)   

Reader's Response Below
Thank you for your courage to tell it like it is!   The General is a good person but what can one person do?   Do you know who the members of her so-called command group are?   The Deputy Commander for Administration is ineffective, disinterested, weak and lame.   The Deputy Commander for Clinical Services is pretty smart but he is a poor leader, has no clue what his subordinates are supposed to do and he is leaving in a few weeks.   The Deputy Commander for Nursing is also lame and she is about to retire.   The Hospital Sergeant Major is also about to retire!    In addition to the problems you described, there are many others.   For example, I wish someone would approach Mr. and Ms. Horrell  and ask them what they know about nepotism and the merit system!   Madigan is a wonderful institution and has many great people but the fat, ineffective and overstaffed upper management needs to replaced and realigned now!  

Husband of a very concerned member of the Madigan Team  
I am rated 100% unemployability. My ratings are as follows.
30% for chlorache from Agent Orange exposure
30% for PTSD
40% for diabetes
It also says on my award letter, "No Future Exams."
My question is do you think they can re-examine me in the future and take away my benefits?
Thank You,
Bob Clark

Bob, Thanks for writing in to the "Veteran's Voice."

The VA can require a future exam at any time  if they feel there may be an issue of fraud or if a   gross mistake was made. But generally in cases like yours where they say no future exams,
they mean just that.

The VA can, if they have sufficient reason, propose to lower a rating percentage only if they        believe you may have gotten better or something has happened and they have to review
certain awards. This can happen as an example as the result of a mandate from Congress. The   issue of PTSD, was getting a lot of nasty attention by the national press and the VA went back   and started looking at this issue when it was awarded to  non-combat veterans.

However, the general rules are basically after five years, service connection can not rescinded,   but the rating percentage can be lowered; after ten years there can be no reduction in the rating percentage or severance of a service connected condition unless there was fraud.

All this to say, if you got a fair rating and they have said no future exams, just run with it. The  VA does not like to hassle vets when they do not need to.

Now, the down side, FYI. The VA does  routinely check up to see if you are working and so does    the Social Security Administration. They both allow you some grace in making some extra income because they know staying home vegetating is harmful. However, 100% unemployability is just that and both agencies frown on a veteran receiving benefits because they can not work and then go out and work full time. So check carefully and see what they allow you. I was told recently that these rules may have changed not too long ago.

Assuming you are not working you may want to consider doing volunteer work in the community and/or working with veterans. Here is where the fun starts. The VA, through the education department,  will sometimes purchase items to make a veteran's life more meaningful. In my case they helped me purchase computer equipment so that I can write like I am now and aid other veterans. Now that there is a war on, there are many opportunities to use your talents and experiences for others, particularly other vets.

So good luck and welcome home.
Thom Stoddert
The Veterans Voice
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Don't Make These Mistakes With the VA

By Thom Stoddert

  I am contacted with requests for help from all over the United States, so I am aware what veterans are dealing with when theycontact the VA. One the most compelling has been a dying veteran who has been keeping a diary of his issues with the VA.

  In one episode he describes a visit to a VA hospital for a medical condition that he thought was related to his exposure to Agent Orange in Viet Nam.

  Several months later he called the VA’s 1-800 number to find out about his claim for service connection of his cancer. To say he was angry and disappointed would be an understatement. His state’s Regional Office had no record of him, nor did they know of any treatment for his cancer. He had brought his newly diagnosed cancer to the VA Hospital for treatment because he believed it was service related and he expected to receive compensation for his disability, instead he got billed.  Where did he go wrong?

  First, He did not have the most basic understanding of how the VA functions. Next, he assumed all by himself that his cancer was resultant from Agent Orange. Finally, he had no idea that hospitals do not file claims for veterans, nor do they notify the Regional Office when a veteran is first treated for cancer or any other issue. The Regional Offices and medical facilities are two different entities. For you who believe in conspiracies; hospitals must stay within budgets; the Regional Office’s Rating Boards do not. They are  two different organizations. 

VA hospitals, nor any other hospital, are set up to determine if a veteran coming in as a patient has a substantive claim for service connection of a

medical issue. They do not file claims  The veteran must do that. A veteran is the only person that can file a legal claim for compensation. Exceptions are made if the vet is incompetent and has a court ordered guardian. And remember the fact that the VA Hospital Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration (Regional Offices) are two different agencies; just like the Department of Defense has the Army and the Navy. In both cases they do not talk to each other very well.

Secondly, our vet assumed that his medical issue is related to his military duty and exposure to Agent Orange in Viet Nam. He had made that assumption all by himself without seeking information like you get at,  or dozens of other places.  If he had a better understanding of what “service connection” is, he would have understood the need for evidence that links his medical condition to his military service. In the case of Agent Orange conditions, the VA only recognizes thirteen diseases as being resultant to the exposure this herbicide. This is because the medical research conducted by many non VA organizations and the VA have found a link or not found a link to herbicide exposure.

In other words  if the veteran has another disease than what is listed by the VA, the claim will not be accepted until the vet can produce expert opinion with competent evidence that links Agent Orange to the vet’s cancer. Many, many veterans make the assumption that what ever illness
they have is related to their military service and/or Agent Orange. They are just wishing too hard; it’s easy enough to do when you are hurting, but that’s not good enough.

As an example; for years I was told of a vet who “died of Agent Orange.” I kept asking; what did he actually die of? You don’t die of exposure to any thing. Instead you die of something the exposure caused.  Exposure to the sun doesn’t kill you, the burns it caused do. Yet, all they would say is “he died of Agent Orange and the f+++en VA won’t compensate his widow for it.” Later I found out he died of a massive heart attack; no research, VA or otherwise, has ever found an association between heart attacks and Agent Orange.

Lastly, the veteran could have saved himself a lot of time and grief if he had some preparation. Instead he ran off primed and half-cocked; no wonder he missed. He had no information and he went it alone. Then he came back writing a diary “Oh Poor Me and My Trials with the VA.” …Go figure!!!  If you don’t know enough about the VA, get help. In fact always seek help. There are some clever people out there that have handled their own claims successfully over the years, but they very rare. I don’t even handle my own claims; I go to another service officer that I learned to trust. I keep my emotions out of the picture.

The end of the story is that our poor vet has a cancer with no evidence it is linked to Viet Nam or his military service. He must make co-payments to the hospital, he has no claim with the Regional Office, and he is very frustrated-angry; believing it’s all the VA’s fault. Here is where my compassion ends; he later refused help from at least two service officers to assist him.

Why did I write about him? Because, he represents so many of us, including me.

service connection for a hearing loss.

The first time any claim is made during the life time of a veteran, a VA form 21-526 or VA form 21-526EZ must be filled out. After that a simple hand written letter is sufficient. In fact, a claimant does not even need to fill out a VA form 21-526 at first. Just write to the Regional Office and they will send you what they need for documentation. This is because years ago many vets filled out the claims form and forgot about it. Once the 526 is completed, it is for life. It starts the building of your claims file or in VA jargon, the C-file. A copy of every communication sent to the veteran or received from the veteran is supposed to be in that file forever.

When writing to the VA, keep remarks short, sweet and to the point. Adding drama to any correspondence only lowers the credibility to the reader, a VA employee. If there are implausible aspects of your story explain them in simple terms and then get some sort of collaborative evidence to submit at the same time.

I have heard about several vets who went to a VA medical facility for treatment. Sometimes a helpful staff member would suggest to the veteran to make a claim, or in other cases the veteran knows that the injury or illness is able to be service connected. In either situation the veteran waits and waits and waits. Then he or she finally calls the 1-800 phone line and speaks to a VA employee and the veteran is told there is no record anywhere of that claim ever being made. Now it has been a year or more and the vet is very angry believing the VA has lost his claim. He/she blows, they are frustrated and they let everyone know how the VA screwed them, they lost the claim. In reality, all of this is their own fault; if they had used just a little bit of common sense.

Generally, a claim for benefits or an increase in benefits specifically must be made by the veteran with his or her own signature. A visit to a medical facility should not be considered by a veteran to be a claim of any sort even if a staff member/employee states there is one. So get the appropriate paperwork done and then sign it. You don’t make claims for service connection through a medical facility.

However, again generally speaking, the exception to this is when a veteran spends 21 days or more in the hospital for an already service connected issue. The VA hospital is supposed to notify the Regional Office that the veteran was hospitalized for an excess of 20 days for treatment of a condition that is service connected. In this case a Rating Decision should be completed. In reality, write the Regional Office, regardless, and tell them you were in the hospital (civilian, military, or VA) and get the temporary increase in benefits. Try not to assume anything.

Medical treatment at a VA treatment facility does not confer the status of “service connection” on a medical problem. “Service connection” is the legal status conferred on a claim that is made only by a Regional Office and only after a rating decision has been completed.

This brings us to one final and very important point; read and re-read all that the VA sends you. Determine what is appropriate for your case. The VA is a very large, complex organization that often fails to communicate well within its own. Don’t waste time getting angry and frustrated just get informed.

Thom Stoddert, former VA Rating Specialist
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