By Steve B. Brooks

Testifying before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs today, American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz laid out the top three legislative priorities for The American Legion: licensing and credentialing of transitioning servicemembers, the VA claims backlog and the effect sequestration will have on national security.

But following Koutz’ testimony, those issues – along with a few others – became of the topics of in-depth discussions between Koutz, Legion staff and members of the committees. The hearing was attended by House Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.; Rep.; Rep. Michael H. Michaud, D-Maine; and Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark.; and Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

Koutz was asked what methods he would suggest to reduce the claims backlog. Koutz said that like in any business, when you get behind, the only way to catch up is to hire more staff. “The only way you’re going to get that backlog taken care of is to hire more people,” Koutz said. “And they’ve got to do the claims more accurately. When they come back (from VA), the first thing we see is mistakes, and then that claim goes back to the regional office, and we’re starting all over again from Step 1. (VA Secretary) Eric Shinseki said he’d like to see a 98-percent accuracy. If we get to that number, I think you’ll see the backlog of claims reduced.”

In his testimony, Koutz briefly mentioned how some veterans in rural areas travel hours to get to their VA appointments. Boozman asked Koutz what could be done to prevent this. Again, Koutz said, the solution is relatively simple: add more clinics to rural areas, and include the staff necessary to run those clinics.

“Veterans are driving up to four hours, and then when they get there, they probably can’t get in,” Koutz said. “The problem is we don’t have enough staff, doctors, medical equipment. So if we add staff (and) add more clinics, I think that’d be a big asset to help these veterans.”

Peter Gaytan, executive director of the Legion’s Washington office, said that those same rural veterans are coming home with mental health needs that aren’t being met. “They’re not coming back to the support of a military base or the unit they know,” he said. “They’re thrown back into the civilian world. Those are the individuals that we need to capture and utilize new ideas like (using TRICARE when VA isn’t available), telehealth, even contracting out specialized mental health care when appropriate. Those are the things we need to look at.”

One issue introduced during the Q&A session was the Legion’s involvement in the military’s Transition Assistance Program. The Legion had requested VA and DoD to share information on transitioning servicemembers, “so we can help them before they take the uniform off,” Gaytan said. “And when they come back to these rural communities where The American Legion lives and exists. We can provide that much-needed help that they may need to access VA, to understand VA.

“The American Legion has a track record since 1919 of helping those individuals. VA and DoD should recognize that and allow us to help at the level we can help. That comes through collaboration: acceptance of what we can do by sharing the information of those transitioning veterans.”

Begich assured the Legion that, “Anything we can do to help make sure you’re at the table – especially in redevelopment of that TAP program – if there’s information you’re sending that you think is valuable, and maybe the listening isn’t happening at the other end at times, you’ve got to let us know,” he said. “Having you involved is critical.”

Begich also asked the Legion about the needs of female veterans. Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, referenced the organization’s 2010 survey of female veterans – the first of its kind since VA’s 1985 survey – and relayed her personal experience of waiting in a hospital emergency room for 15 hours because the hospital didn’t have a room for a woman veteran. Jones said that when female veterans return home, they want those special needs recognized.

“Women want to be able to walk into the VA health-care system and receive the gender-specific care that we deserve,” Jones said. “We want DoD and we want the VA to understand that women are a large part of our military. When we come home, we want to be cared for, just like our male veterans.”

During the Q&A session, the Legion was praised for its filing of 244,000 VA benefits claims – at no charge to the veterans – its 76.6-percent success rate in getting incorrect VA disability ratings overturned, its “cutting edge” work in the credentialing and licensing arena, and its development of a mobile app to help ease the claims process for veterans.