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Dave Olson, Published June 28 2013

Franken aims to speed up veterans’ benefits

MOORHEAD – Finding ways to get benefits to veterans quicker was the focus of a meeting here Friday morning organized by members of the staff of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

Nationwide, more than 600,000 veteran benefits claims are caught in a backlog, said Nicole Ly, constituent services representative for Franken’s office.

Ly said Franken, along with Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., recently introduced legislation to help clear up the backlog, which is forcing veterans to wait an average of 300 days for their claims to be processed.

Ly said part of the reason for the backlog is the fact the VA is processing more claims than it ever has before.

One provision of the proposed legislation would prohibit the VA from requiring a VA medical exam for disability claims when non-VA evidence would be adequate for deciding a claim, she said.

“The goal here is to save both time and resources,” Ly said.

Tom Figliuzzi, the Veterans Service officer for Clay County, told Ly and Valerie Gravseth, Franken’s field officer for northwest Minnesota, that the VA facility in Fargo is exceptional in providing services.

But it has its limitations, he said, citing the VA center’s emergency department, which Figliuzzi said isn’t equipped to handle all types of emergency situations.

“If I had a heart attack, the ambulance will not take me there,” he said.

Figliuzzi told Ly and Gravseth he appreciates Franken’s efforts to address backlog issues, but he urged caution in how legislation is worded, warning new rules should be crafted carefully so they do not unintentionally make matters worse.

He said, for example, that if new rules require the VA to shorten the time for deciding claims, it may lead to more denials because the agency is required by law to have certain information in hand before approving a claim.

Figliuzzi also offered a suggestion for improving dental benefits.

He said veterans are currently given a certain number of days to use their dental benefit or they will lose it.

If a condition is deemed chronic, treatment isn’t covered, he added.

Figliuzzi said a better way to set up the benefit would be to cap it at a certain dollar figure and then let veterans spend that amount over whatever time period they choose.

“When you use it up, you use it up,” he said.

Gravseth thanked Figliuzzi for the idea and urged others at the meeting, who represented a variety of veterans groups, to share their ideas for helping veterans get help they need.

“When you come up with a solution, email me,” she said.