Vietnam Veterans of America
On April 14, VVA Veteran senior writer Marc Leepson interviewed Paul R. Lawrence, Ph.D, Under Secretary for Benefits at the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on his agency and how it affects veterans applying for benefits.
Q: What impact is the current situation with the coronavirus having on veterans benefits?
A: Generally, it is having no effect.
One of the questions I get asked when I do tele-town halls is, “Are my benefits going to continue?” If you presently are earning benefits from us—a monthly check—that continues unchanged. That is absolutely unchanged.
If you have a claim in to us, we continue to process claims. We are tele-work enabled, so our employees are home-processing claims. In fact, [in March] we had one of our highest output months with processing claims.
We are seeing some things slow down: the ability to do C&P [Compensation & Pension], the in-person exams where we check conditions, has come to a stop because no one wants to do this in person anymore. Neither the doctors, nor the VA, wants veterans potentially exposed. So we’re doing what are called tele-C&P exams, looking at medical records, and we’re trying to continue processing claims that way.
But there are some things that you just can’t substitute for an in-person visit. Those folks will be teed up so that when we get started back up again, they’ll be right there at the front of the line.
So, so far there are no changes. We expect some slowing down until we return to the new normal.
Q: What’s your advice to veterans worried about benefit-filing deadlines?
A: As for deadlines, we are providing extensions. If something is due now, when you provide the documents, you simply put a note in it saying, “This is late due to COVID,” and you’re automatically granted an extension. Anybody who’s worrying about not being able to get their information together, we understand and you will be given an extension.
If you want to file a claim now, but you can’t get the stuff together, we invite people to call our toll-free number, 800-827-1000, and identify your intent to file and ask that the date start that day. That’ll secure your starting date.
The bottom line is: We’re trying to imagine every situation, but there will be some that are unique and special. But we’re going to be doing everything we can to be sympathetic to veterans who are trying to access their benefits during this period of time. If something unusual happens, we invite them to call and explain so we can make sure it gets dealt with appropriately.
Q: Are you doing anything special with Veteran Service Officers to help them gain access to databases remotely?
A: Yes. We’ve been talking to them pretty regularly. The Secretary hosts a call with VSO leaders once a week. We’re having multiple conversations. We’re explaining things to the VSOs.
We have found that most of them are tele-work enabled and they can access our systems and the like. If they can’t, we’re working with them to figure out the best thing to do.
The offices started to close down in March in stages. People began to see that the states were starting to encourage people to work remotely. Things were taken out of the offices and people seemed to have vacated in a pretty orderly fashion. But, again, we’re continuing to explain the extensions, how to handle mail, and these unique situations. We’re trying to get information to the VSOs because of the special role they play as partners with us.
Q: Are you taking any special steps to deal with potential fraud related to coronavirus?
A: Yes. We are worried about that, but we’re not seeing anything particularly unusual. But we know that as money slows down and people get into difficult situations, we know unfortunately people look to take advantage of veterans. So we continue to educate and explain to veterans to be on the lookout for these types of things.
Q: What about debt collection? Any changes with that during this crisis?
A: Debt collection has been suspended. It’s not being waived; you’re being put on “pause.” Basically, the Secretary directed us to suspend debt collection. What that means is, if we establish a new debt during this period of time, it’ll automatically be suspended.
For existing debt that veterans have, we ask them to call our Debt Management Center at 800-827-0648 to arrange what their preference is. They can suspend it or they can alter the payments, or whatever they’re most comfortable with.
Again, it’s suspension, not waiving. Eventually all this will be over, and we will go back and start dealing with debt.
Q: Is there a procedure in place for that?
A: We have procedures to deal with that. The big question—and this is probably where the VSOs will be able to help us—is, When will this period be over? We’ll have to declare when these things like the extensions will be in effect till a certain date at which point we will return to our regular processes. The date is something that will have to be finalized and discussed.
Q: What’s the status of the 48-hour review situation? Is the virus having an impact on that?
A: The virus is having no impact on that.
Q: Please explain the new program the VA has to help veterans with setting up electronic funds transfers.
A: I want to give a shout out to our Veterans Benefits Banking Program. We discovered that about 5 percent of veterans do not get their benefits with an electronic deposit into a bank account. They either get the old-fashioned green Treasury check or they have their benefits loaded on debit cards issued by the Treasury Department.
This can lead to all kinds of problems, including losing a check. They’re issued by Treasury, so there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. Or they get charged large fees when they present their debit cards. And, of course, fraud and the like.
So we arranged for more than twenty national banks and credit unions to extend free checking to veterans. That way, they can have their benefits deposited in electronic funds like everybody else. We’re really pushing hard to get people to look at this program. Even if they’re unhappy with their present banking situation, they can draw on these banks. They’re all well-known banks that are established and regulated and provide good protections to the people who participate.
We started this in December, but it’s even more important now given that checks are being passed around and people want to manage their money carefully, fraudsters are looking at veterans, and debit cards are less secure. Now is a good time to bring this to everyone’s attention.
Q: What’s the main message about benefits you’d like to get across to Vietnam War veterans today?
A: We haven’t forgotten that on January first we started processing Brown Water Navy claims. Those are continuing to be processed and granted. It’ll probably take a little different turn with the C&P exams and the search for records and the like, but that hasn’t stopped. We’re continuing to do that.
The Veterans Benefits Administration is open for business and providing benefits to all veterans. It’s not as usual because this is a very different time in the world. But we’re very much focused on what we’re doing, and what veterans have earned and what we’re delivering on.
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