Here's How Advocates Are Stepping Up to Care for Vets Where the VA Has Failed

As the Veteran Affairs office lags behind, the American Legion is helping to pick up the slack.

El Paso hosts a Veterans Crisis Command Center. (Photo: American Legion Post 58/Facebook)

Jul 14, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Cale Bonderman is an editorial summer intern at TakePart. He studies Literary Arts at Brown University and hails from Colorado. He's interested in political reform and technology.

It was early in the morning when Marine Corps veteran Rob Goins pulled in to the American Legion crisis center in Phoenix recently. He was dubious about the day ahead of him, and for good reason.

The 50-year-old Arizona resident hurt his back years ago while in the Corps, but when he tried to get treatment at a Veterans Affairs hospital it denied him, saying his noncombat injury didn't rate as a health care priority.

At 7:30 a.m., Goins settled in at the crisis center waiting room, resigned to a long, difficult day, and possibly one that would get him no closer to the help he needed. What happened next was, in Goins' words, "unheard of."

By 7:40 a.m. Goins was sitting in front of a benefits administrator, who opened his case file and enrolled him in the VA health benefits program. No denials, transfers, wait lists, or bureaucratic red tape; Goins had health care. The crisis center also referred him to an organization called Empact, a suicide prevention center and mental health clinic that partners with VA services.

“They told me, 'Look, we’ll come, we’ll pick you up, we’ll take you to the VA, we’ll walk you to all of the places you need to go, in order to get yourself in a position to get the benefits that you need,' ” he said.

To date, Goins has been seen at the local VA hospital three times and has an appointment with a primary physician.

Goins is one of hundreds of American veterans who's finally receiving the help he deserves. The American Legion is the nation's largest nonprofit veterans' rights agency, and it is teaming with the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish temporary Veterans Crisis Command Centers in cities across the nation. Greater supervision and regional support from the VA, the local Red Cross, and the American Legion seem to be making all the difference: An estimated 1,800 vets who never received care have now been helped.

The American Legion's centers open for one week, during which time administrators provide support in any way they can, such as getting vets enrolled in the VA health program; providing retroactive payments, sometimes immediately; scheduling counselor appointments for patients with psychological problems; and booking referrals for anyone who needs a physician outside the VA health care system.

The crisis centers are a necessary relief for the flailing Veterans Affairs Department, in the wake of a scandal in which it was discovered that the agency was systematically covering up long wait times and instances in which vets were never served.

According to an audit of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 64,000 vets waited more than a decade for help, and there’s a backlog of 250,000 claims. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for young Iraq war vets is 21 percent, or triple the national average. Suicide rates for young veterans increased 44 percent in the last three years for males, and 11 percent for females, and an estimated 22 veterans are committing suicide every day. More advocacy, outreach, and resources are desperately needed to combat these problems.

“A lot of it is the bureaucracy of the VA health care systems,” said Roscoe Butler, the American Legion's deputy director for health care. “Local facility managers have not been empowered to do the right things.… It’s their failure to take charge of the situation.”

In light of the scandal, the American Legion, which runs youth programs and therapy sessions, assists in benefit claims, and holds community-building events for vets, has taken partial control of the VA's resources to establish the centers.

That's good news, but it's not something that should warrant celebrating. The dismal truth may very well be that the crisis centers are more like a bandage than like a vaccine.

The American Legion crisis prevention centers will be visiting Fort Collins, Colo., St. Louis, and Baltimore between now and October, with plans to stop in other cities in the future.