ANCHORAGE - Getting benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs is a slow and overly complex process, Alaska vets told a U.S. Senate committee hearing.
Mark Bilosz, regional director for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said during Tuesday's hearing that the VA is improving service in Alaska after a poor review by federal inspectors. At the request of Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who conducted the field hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Bilosz promised a full report on changes at the Anchorage office by June.
Gabriel Fierros, who was struck by shrapnel when his helicopter went down outside Baghdad in 2007, said some vets are still frustrated with the local office. Fierros told the hearing that he hasn't gotten any disability benefits even though he was medically retired from the Army in May.
"I am told I have one more appointment, one more appointment, one more appointment," he said.
Fierros, who was invited to speak at the hearing, said his injuries are all documented by the Army, and he doesn't understand why the VA needs to redo everything.
"They're duplicating," he said. "I thought they were about shared information, but I guess not."
Chief Master Sgt. Tim Carroll, the senior enlisted man for Elmendorf Air Force Base's 3rd Wing before retiring in 2008, said he had an easier time getting benefits but still had to negotiate the bureaucracy.
"I was pretty aggressive in trying to understand the system itself. I stayed on the phone. I stayed on the Internet. I asked, 'What do I need to provide - what can I do?"' he told the hearing.
He said Fierros' case shows how cumbersome the system is.
"Can't we skinny that down?" he asked.
Begich is conducting a series of discussions and hearings on veterans' issues this week, with events planned in Wasilla, Fairbanks and Kotzebue.
Alaska has an estimated 76,400 veterans. In the 2000 census, veterans accounted for about 18 percent of the state's population, the highest percentage in the nation.
The regional VA office in Anchorage was heavily criticized in a December report by the VA Office of Inspector General. It said the Anchorage office had a 29 percent error rate in handling disability claims and failed to meet requirements in 13 of 14 areas covered by the inspection.
Belinda Finn of the Office of Inspector General told senators that the Anchorage office suffered because it was without an onsite supervisor for eight months, with Bilosz in charge from Salt Lake City.
Computer network problems plagued the Anchorage office for a year, Finn said. Claims the Anchorage office didn't have time to handle were sent to offices in Fort Harrison, Mont., and Salt Lake City, making it difficult to track them.