Greg E. Mathieson, Sr.
1. The following are a number of items I have experienced both in dealing with my disability claim before the Veterans Administration and that of my working on my fathers claim before the Veterans Administration.
2. My father Everett Albert Mathieson, now in his ‘80s is a Korean War Veteran, having served with the 1st Marine Division in the Chosin Reservoir in 1950 for a number of months. During that time temperatures reached to as low as minus 35 degrees F. As a result many US service members died or experienced frostbite.
3. My father filed claims with the Veterans Administration early on, given that back in the 50’s and 60’s many were simply hand written notes with paper and pencil and mailed to the VA. There were not copy machines, typewriters with carbons and others means of making duplicates in those days for the simple soldier now a civilian.
4. For over 5 decades my father wrote and pleaded with the VA for assistance, yet during those years, the VA did not recognize Frostbite as a war injury and did little or nothing to help the veteran.
The VA now recognizes the injury of Frostbite as described in their Military Health History Pocket Card for Clinicians. http://www.va.gov/oaa/pocketcard/korea.asp which in brief states: The Korean War was fought from 1950 until 1953 and pitted the United States, South Korea and their UN allies against North Korea and the Chinese Communists.
Cold injuries including frostbite and immersion (trench) foot constituted a major medical problem for U.S. service personnel during the Korean War. Veterans of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir are recognized as having suffered especially high rates of severe cold injuries. Cold accounted for 16% of Army nonbattle injuries requiring admission and over 5000 U.S. casualties of cold injury required evacuation from Korea during the winter of 1950-1951.
In many instances U.S. Service members did not seek or were unable to obtain medical care after cold injuries because of battlefield conditions. Documentation of such injuries may never have been made in their service medical records or may no longer be available.
It is important for VA staff examining and caring for veterans who have experienced cold injuries to be familiar with the recognized long-term and delayed sequelae. These include peripheral neuropathy, skin cancer in frostbite scars (including in such locations as the heels and earlobes), arthritis in involved areas, chronic tinea pedis, fallen arches and stiff toes, nocturnal pain, and cold sensitization. These cold-related problems may worsen as veterans grow older and develop complicating conditions such as diabetes and peripheral vascular disease, which place them at higher risk for late amputations.
5. My father was treated for a period of time at the VA Hospital at Northport, NY, though the VA repeatedly informed him of not having any records. My father has maintained the VA Northport Hospital prescription bottles to this day along with related paperwork, yet the VA does not have copies.
6. A number of years ago, I became involved in my fathers VA disability claim seeing that he had been getting nowhere on his own and also with the service organization of the Purple Heart. I put in FOIA requests for both his records and mine for service records, medical records and more. After long periods of time we managed to start getting in bits of pieces of records from all the various service centers. To my surprise in one instant, I was sent a European Service Medal for participating in World War II, though I was born in 1954. Many records were lost over years, more recently in the past 4-5 years, by the Veterans Administrations own admission do to a computer change over of systems.
7. In May of 2012, at the ceremony with President Obama at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial I had the opportunity to speak with Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki about my father’s case. A few days later someone from VA Headquarters contacted me and put me direct contact with someone at the New York City VA Regional Office who was working on my fathers claim.
8. After years of fighting the VA it had seemed that we might be on the right course of getting my fathers claim settled and medical treatment via the VA vs. my father having to pay for it all these past years. Finally a doctor familiar with Frostbite injures met with him and certified the injures and he was provided disability benefits starting at that time for his injuries. In the past VA doctors, unfamiliar with frostbite would dismiss his injures as being dermalogical and treated with skin creams.
9. Shortly there after my father was hospitalized for complications related to his frostbite after all these years, blood clots and other items continued. The VA office then continued to ask for more paperwork, more forms files out, making the process that was finally underway, even harder for my father. Keep in mine, many veterans in their 80’s do not use or now how to use the Internet or type on a computer. My father, a man who did not have any formal education other then high school in the ‘40s could not understand the forms and needs of the VA’s constant mailed questions.
10. The VA at times seems to constantly sends forms to the Veterans to fill out, with every letter of correspondence, even attaching it to the simple, we’re working on your claim letter. This confuses the veterans of that generation in thinking they need to do something when in fact they do not.
11. We filed for an earlier effective date of my fathers claim for when he first filed it some five decades ago and asked that it be forwarded to the Board of Veterans Affairs in Washington DC for him to have a face to face hearing in Washington.
12. We were told it could not be forwarded to the BVA until all his treatments; medical claims and others were closed out in New York. He still had a claim pending for his hospital stay of over 30 days and the VA was awaiting more paperwork, though we provided his discharge papers showing his 30 days of stay in the hospital. At one point we told the VA it was not worth the months of waiting for a $1,000 claim for hospitalization which was holding up is much bigger claim of an earlier effective date for is disability, which if approved would amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in back payments.
13. We retained an attorney for the BVA hearing in Washington and waited for my fathers claim file to be forwarded to Washington to start the process, but it never showed up. I finally found that the file had been returned to the file storage as being closed out. We eventually got it to the BVA where it is today.
14. In dealing with BVA in my own hearing some 5 months ago, we were told that the BVA is currently reviewing hearing testimony from heard in 2010 and that I have some 46,000 cases before mine to review, all in order of coming in. The BVA Ombudsman confirmed this to me a few weeks ago.
15. After getting a copy of my hearing transcript from the BVA I read through to confirm that the hearing Judge, stated that I should be getting a final determination within 2-3 months, that he doesn’t control what comes on his desk, but that’s about the average time. When I read this statement to the BVA office rep, I was told that the judges routinely don’t tell the veteran the truth, knowing that it can take years and want do so to make the veteran feel good and give them hope that someone is doing something.
16. I then also stated that in my hearing transcript, the judge makes mention of retiring in the next few months as well. When asked how this could effect my hearing I was told that I would have to return and have another hearing before another judge and start the process all over again, though my place in the docket for review would be the same.
17. In the transcript of my BVA hearing the judge states that he does not need to “develop” my case that basically it’s black and white and he has made a determination. In cases like this, the Judge should be allowed to make this ruling if in fact it is a simple matter that can be finalized to the benefit of the veteran and not keep him/her waiting another few years for the outcome.
18. I’m currently getting ready to have surgery and having both my knees replaced and I’m told that even though I again have to submit paper work for rehabilitation treatment and other related items, it can again, take up to a year or more of processing though my local VA office.
19. Another issue I learned is when asked about taking my son off of my current disability benefits when he graduates from college, I was told that it could again, take up to one year or more for the VA to suspend that payment, in fact I would keep getting paid for something I am not entitled to and then have to pay be back when the paperwork cached up within the VA some 12-14 months later.
20. I speaking to a veterans service organization representative, I was told that her husband had died over 5 years ago, yet though she told the VA that she was not allowed spousal support any longer, they kept providing it and then took it back years later. This seems to be the norm and down the road affects the veteran when his/her benefits are reduced to payback the money they were not entitled to, yet make the effort to inform the VA of the changes needed.
21. In the past few months, I have tried to reach out the Headquarters of the Veterans Administration on a number of issues, some personal and some as a member of the news media that covers Capitol Hill. I’m surprised to find in many cases, that he Veterans Administration does not list its numbers to the general public much like every other government agency. If you want to call the White House, they have a number listed. If you ask for a particular office at the Pentagon, you’ll be put through to that office, however there is not even a standard switchboard number for the Veterans Administration if someone should which to reach the Inspector Generals Office, the Chief of Staff an more.
22. Recently I went to the Veterans Administrations Headquarters and asked to speak to the Public Affairs office and was told without a name of a person, they could not call that office. The same applied to all the offices within the Headquarters. Even the Central Intelligence Agency has a main number to call to reach someone or an officer related to something.
It’s clear that the Veterans Administration has serious problems. They will not get fixed over night or in months unless there is a change in management and/or leadership with a plan on making changes. There are however some simple things that can be fixed now:
1. Being able to stop payment benefits when a spouse calls and says their loved one has died.
2. Judges at BVA should be honest with Veterans about time frames on reviewing cases and not provide false information to make the Veterans “feel good”.
3. Having a main number to call VA if you which to reach the Headquarters for other then dealing with a claim issue.
4. Not continuously sending forms to the veterans with every piece of correspondence when they are not truly needed.
5. Judges at BVA hearings should be allowed to make a final determination at the hearing, much like other courts, if the case is such that a simple determination can be made in favor of the veteran, thereby cutting down the docket of cases considerable and not keep veterans waiting for years when the remedy sought was simple and clear in nature and the judge agrees to it.
6. Doctors providing paperwork on a Veterans benefits claim do not speak the same language as the VA’s claims adjudicators. In my case an orthopedic surgeon would quote page number and paragraph listed in the American Medical Association yet the VA uses it’s own codes, which specifically need to be mentioned in the doctors reports to move the claim forward.
I’m writing this testimony not in the interest of being self-serving, but to bring to the Committee members attention some of the frustrations and time elements tens of thousand of Veterans are experiencing daily and also hoping of bringing some common sense solutions to some of the problems currently going on.
//// Signed //////
Greg E. Mathieson Sr.