Search Jim's Mailbag
Communicate effectively with the VA
I am a US Navy veteran (Viet Nam Era) living on a VA disability pension of $985 per month. This is my only income. Due to a botched change of address that I submitted via phone on August 15th 2011, I have not received a check since the beginning of August. I have called the VA on numerous occasions to try to get this fixed. Twice, I was told the problem had been corrected and it would take 7-10 days to receive a check. On the second of those calls, I was told my benefit had been erroneously suspended on Sept. 12th when the September check was returned. But don't worry, it's fixed now. Just wait another 7-10 days. For the past month, I have not even been able to get a live body on the phone. (Try it: 800-827-1000 options 1,1,0).
Two weeks ago, I physically went to the VA Services office in San Luis Obispo, CA (25 miles away) to seek assistance. A Veterans' Service Officer noted that my benefit was still suspended and made further inquiries on my behalf. She described the VA's response as "less than helpful." When asked to elaborate, she said she'd been told they "would fix it when they got around to it." She suggested I escalate the matter with my Congressman's office. An aid in that office also made an inquiry on my behalf on October 21st. I called her again today. They now tell me that the VA has a month to respond to that inquiry, and that the Congressman's office will make no further inquiries until that month expires.
Something is very wrong here. To whom should I escalate this matter? I haven't paid any bills for over 2 months and I'm getting pretty desperate.
I regret to tell you that there is no way to escalate the issue. The VA addresses such problems as they get to them in the order they are received. Every veteran who has a similar problem is in a very long line. Your problem is no more or less important to VA than any other veterans. You understand that if your issue were somehow prioritized that it would mean delaying another veterans problem resolution.
You have made mistakes that precipitated the issue. I write about how to communicate effectively with VA often.
The change of address that is routine at most places is not so routine at your VA. The veteran must notify their regional office in writing. The letter must be delivered using certified mail, return receipt requested.
I advise that veterans never dial the toll free number for change of address, help or advice. As you've learned, the toll free number doesn't actually provide any service that can be relied on. When you call the toll free number you don't reach an office inside your VARO, you reach a "call center". The computer systems in the call center aren't very sophisticated and often any information entered into them is not transmitted as it should be.
Once the VA Regional Office is notified by certified mail and the veteran begins to move, he or she must file a notice of forwarding address with their local post office. This will ensure that any mail is automatically forwarded to the new address. This service is usually reliable and is in effect for one year.
That you continue to receive a check is rare today. The VA has been pushing veterans to have their disability payments electronically deposited to a bank account. http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2023
Many banks offer limited free services to recipients of government checks such as Social Security and VA disability payments. If the veteran must change banks, the process is easy to do and is one of the more effective procedures at your VA.
I understand that this may seem an absurd situation to you...it is. A simple change of address shouldn't be as problematic as this is. However, your Department of Veterans Affairs is not functioning very well and hasn't for years. There is a backlog of cases that is estimated to be over one million strong and growing. Many veterans are waiting a year, two years or more to have their claims and problems resolved.
I suggest that you immediately write a very brief letter to VA as soon as possible. Address it to the regional office where your case file is located. The letter should inform the VA that you have had a change of address. State the old address and the new address and nothing else. Don't use this letter to make claims or vent your frustrations. Use certified mail, return receipt requested to mail it. Once you receive the green receipt from the VARO you'll know that your letter will find its way to the appropriate department and the change of address will occur.
This may take months if your account has been suspended. If VA has flagged your account and you are recorded as missing with no forwarding address, it may take a while to set this straight. The certified letter is the only process that I have any confidence in that will help you.
Contacting a Congressperson for such a problem may or may not help. VA has 45 days to reply to the Congressional representative. It is usually a form letter that tells them that your case is in process and should be resolved soon. The VA has tens of thousands of similar letters from Congress and unless the problem is very unusual and obviously the VA has erred grievously, the inquiry and response is perfunctory and of little value.