Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

TOP STORY >>Veteran has to travel out of state for treatment

By ALIYA FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

After traveling from his home in Jacksonville to the VA Hospital in Jackson, Miss., for 40 radiation treatments that began three years ago, Gary Gilmore isn’t cancer free and is still unable to work. He says the Veterans Administration cut his disability benefits even though he planned on depending on its care when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a result of being exposed to Agent Orange when he served in Vietnam in 1972.

“I love the United States, but I cannot stand the government,” the 66-year-old former soldier said.

“It’s unreal how they treat the veterans. If we have Agent Orange, we should be paid 100 percent,” said Gilmore, who also served for 12 years in the Army after Vietnam.

The VA ranks disabilities by percentage. Gilmore has what the VA considers a 20-percent disability because his cancer is considered to be in remission. He received disability benefits in full, or 100 percent, upon diagnosis. Gilmore said that even though he underwent his last radiation treatment two years ago, tests show his cancer increasing.

Dr. Margie Scott, chief of staff of Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, said radiation therapy is not available in Little Rock. Scott said if the central Arkansas VA does not provide a service, treatment is always sought in the VA system first if the patient is willing and able to travel for care. If the patient is unable to travel, Scott said therapy could be done in a local private hospital. “We always check for VA resources first,” Scott said, adding that the VA wants to keep costs low. “We want to take care of as many patients as possible,” she said.

Scott said Arkansas VA hospitals take patients from Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Missouri who need surgery and mental-health care, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder.

Officials in Washington say they are trying to do more to help the 268,000 veterans who live in Arkansas. One office with 124 employees handles disability compensation and pension benefits, survivors’ benefits, vocational rehabilitation and counseling. The Little Rock office authorizes more than $45 million each month in pension and compensation payments.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., helped pass legislation increasing the VA budget by $70 million so that more claims processors can be hired.

Lincoln said disabilities claims grew 39 percent from 2000 to 2006, creating a backlog of 400,000 claims. The average time to process a claim is nearly six months. Lincoln also wants to end the Pentagon’s practice of subtracting veterans’ disability payments from their entire pension amount.

She has proposed an amendment to a century-old law that would give veterans who cannot work at all due to a service-connected disability their full pensions and disability pay.

In 2004, Congress agreed to a 10-year phase-in of concurrent receipt to all veterans who are 50 to 100 percent disabled. She said she wants immediate compensation given to veterans.

When Vietnam veteran Jerry Bowan sees $440 less each month in his veterans’ benefit check, he said it means the Pentagon has more money to spend on the war in Iraq. He served in Vietnam twice and was in the Army for 26 years. Because he had skin cancer, not a combat-duty related injury, he does not qualify for concurrent receipt, so the Pentagon deducts his disability compensation from his veterans’ pension.

“For the vast majority of us, disability did not occur in combat duty,” he said. He cannot prove that filling sand bags in the blazing Vietnamese sun caused his skin cancer because he also chopped cotton near Newport as a teenager. Still, the VA ruled that his disability was caused during combat.

“The VA will always rule on the side of a veteran,” he said. “I think the VA is very considerate to say we will always rule in favor of a veteran.

“But if a veteran has a service-connected disability, the Pentagon won’t let you have that retirement money,” he said. “When they take my money they have more money to spend in Iraq,” he said.

Rep. Marion Berry, who sits on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, recently urged President Bush to fix problems facing the VA.

“As task forces and commissions from various agencies devote considerable resources to finding better ways to help the men and women who have served, time passes and veterans continue to go without care,” Berry wrote in a recent letter to the president.