TEMPLE TERRACE — Forget about scheduling a doctor's appointment through the Veterans Affairs system. At this point, Sanford Brookins said, he can't even get the St. Petersburg Regional Benefit Office to reply to a letter.
Brookins, 53, said an appeals board in Washington, D.C., decided back in March that he was entitled to coverage for some of his medical conditions. More than 100 days later, Brookins has written and even driven to the local office in person and is still waiting for a response.
"My dilemma right now is that they're not doing anything about it," said Brookins, a Navy veteran.
His story was a familiar one for many of those who attended a Veterans Intake Day organized by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, at Temple Terrace City Hall on Wednesday. Some came to find people to help them with claims, and some mentioned positive experiences with their doctors and specific VA-run programs. But most were frustrated with a system that often takes months or years to work through.
Brent South of New Tampa said it seems as if veterans need "special powers" to know how to get what they need from their veterans benefits. South said he was severely injured when his helicopter went down in Iraq in 2004, but he remained in the Army and retired after 20 years in 2010. Once he began seeking full compensation for a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, he was told he should have been given a medical retirement because of his injury.
"It's a lot easier," South said of the typical retirement process. "The medical evaluation board process is pretty lengthy. In a regular retirement, you fill out a piece of paper, you send it in and they say yes or no. They give you a cake and a flag, and that's it.
"With a medical evaluation board, you have to go to multiple appointments, they have to diagnose you with certain things, and on top of that, they have a treatment plan to follow on with those things."
South said he was never given a full medical evaluation in 2004, adding the extra burden of proving that his current medical problems are the result of combat action. That's the same problem Bill Flack, a Vietnam veteran, ran into when part of his Army medical records went missing.
Flack, 70, said he fell 10 to 20 feet from a helicopter when he was being dropped for a reconnaissance mission in July of 1969. He began seeking help from the VA in 1993, but when the medical files from his time in Vietnam went missing, he had to provide copies of letters he wrote to his mother to prove that he had even been in combat.
"They won't do one ounce of research," Flack said. "You've got to serve it to them on a silver platter or else they'll deny you."
Many of the attendees said they had turned to Ross or other members of Congress for help in dealing with the VA, and Ross said his office is currently handling about 215 such cases.
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