Benefits: Expert Help to Access what You’ve Earned
Alan Klingensmith, a former Marine, had not been out of the service long when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). He was not aware that this spinal cord disease could be related to his years of service, and, as such, he would be eligible for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Fortunately for him, however, Scott Hilliard, acting director of Field Services at Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans), did know.
“He had no clue he might be eligible for benefits,” Hilliard said. “Because of the work I do, I reached out to him. I wanted to make sure he would get the benefits he had earned. I asked, ‘Do you realize you may be entitled to benefits?’ He said, ‘I had no idea.’ ”
If Klingensmith is found to have service-connected MS, he may qualify for compensation, even if he’s getting benefits through Medicare and TRICARE, the health-care program serving uniformed service members, retirees and their families.
Among the benefits he is eligible to receive are assistance obtaining an accessible vehicle, grants for home modifications, in-home assistance with activities of daily living and independent living services. He could also get respite care, so a family caregiver can take a much-needed break, among other things.
“We will work to show a service connection for his MS and get him his VA benefits,” Hilliard said. “That’s how we change people’s lives.”
Sherman Gillums Jr., associate executive director of the Veterans Benefits Department (VBD), at Paralyzed Veterans explained.
“Many of these benefits get overlooked because of a combination of poor outreach on VA’s part and ignorance of entitlement on the part of those who are eligible,” Gillums said. “The best way for a potential claimant to find out what he or she may be entitled to is to contact a national service officer for a comprehensive case review.”
With 69 service offices, Veterans Benefits is the largest program of the Paralyzed Veterans. VBD’s 85 national service officers work to provide assistance to veterans and their families, starting with bedside visits of the newly injured at VA medical centers, not only to help ensure quality care but also to inform them of their eligible benefits and to begin the filing process. They provide guidance throughout the VA claims process, including assistance appealing denied claims.
Over the past decade, Paralyzed Veterans has helped veterans identify benefits and complete and file claims resulting in slightly less than $1.5 billion in benefits. Additionally, the service officers help family members get benefits, too.
“I’ve had a wife for 19 years, and I’ve always told her, ‘If I die, contact my service officer,’ ” Hilliard said, “They will know what to do.”
The claims process doesn’t always go smoothly, but Paralyzed Veterans’ national service officers don’t give up. Hilliard recalled one of the first veterans he helped early in his career, a veteran with a complicated case: he had polio and thought it might be service connected. That was about 15 years ago.
“Finally two years ago, we won his case,” Hilliard said. “Nearly 15 years—we finally won his case for him. He’ll call me every couple weeks to say hello, and to thank me for believing in his case. Everybody doubted this guy as a liar.”
Hilliard recommends to all veterans, “You should be a friend with local service officers. Paralyzed Veterans’ service officers are thoroughly trained and have expertise on all areas where veterans are entitled to benefits—from VA to state and local levels. We will work to make sure you get the benefits you have earned.”
Patrick McCallister is a reporter in Florida and frequent contributor to PN Magazine.