Starting last months, officials from the Veterans Benefits Administration in Oklahoma began sending packages of benefit claims awards — notification that veterans would be receiving the benefits they earned — to VFW Post 6827 in St. Petersburg.
All told, there were eight packages delivered, each containing about 50 to 75 notifications.
So Eugene Manfrey, the judge advocate for that post, went to visit Kerrie Witty, director of the VA’s St. Petersburg Regional Office, seeking an opportunity to talk to her about the problem and make sure the veterans who received their awards were notified.
Standing up in a room full of veterans gathered at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center Wednesday morning for one of the VA’s town hall meetings being held around the country, Manfrey said that Witty refused to meet with him. And he wanted to know why.
After hearing Manfrey’s concerns first hand, Witty, making one of several apologies on the day, agreed to meet with him.
Witty and other leaders of the Young center and regional office were on hand to explain advances in care and reductions in wait times and claims processing, as well as hear veterans offer their concerns and suggestions. About two dozen staffers from both the hospital and the regional office were on hand to help further answer veterans’ questions and help guide them through the process.
About 75 veterans and family members showed up for the meeting. Manfrey, 84, who served as an Army staff sergeant in occupied Japan after World War II, was one of 17 veterans who raised concerns, many of them by now familiar in scope and nature, of how an overwhelmed system has failed them.
St. Petersburg resident Larry Smiley, 68, was an Army Special Forces staff sergeant during the Vietnam War. He said he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and took the microphone to talk about having to wait five years for mental health treatment.
Hospital Director Suzanne Klinker apologized for the wait and she and Young center Chief of Staff Dominique Thuiere explained that help was available, with Smiley ultimately being given a 2 p.m. appointment.
James Holloman, who left the Army as a sergeant after serving between 2000 and 2006, told the VA leaders that he had waited 819 days for a ruling on whether his two step children could receive VA dependency benefits.
Witty again apologized. Explaining that there are about 12,000 individuals waiting for a dependency ruling from the regional office, with the average wait being 336 days, she directed Holloman to regional office personnel who could help him.
Before the veterans told their stories, both Klinker and Witty talked about improvements to the system.
Klinker said that the hospital was improving access to and quality of its own healthcare and was increasing access to outside care when warranted, with an 11 percent increase from this time last year.
On the benefits side, Witty said that the number of outstanding claims has dropped over the past 18 months to 35,000. The number of veterans waiting more than 125 days for a rating — a formula that determines how much compensation a veterans receives — has dropped by 44 percent over that period as well, said Witty. At the same time, accuracy has increased from 83 percent to 90 percent, she said.
After telling his story, Larry Smiley said he was satisfied with the results of the town hall.
“I have an appointment today,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
The James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital will hold its town hall meeting Thursday, 3:30 p.m., in the hospital’s second floor auditorium.