Op-Ed: Vietnam War Veteran “VA Patients Wrongfully Denied Travel Reimbursement”
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By: Brooks Outland
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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has, so far, successfully covered-up the “mismanagement of a VA program” by the Matsunaga VA Medical Center (Clinic) in Honolulu, Hawaii. This error has denied eligible VA patients the travel reimbursements they should have received from 1978 until 2009!
Luckily Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (HI) and Walz are soon introducing legislation that can help fix this. But you need to read about my experiences below to see if the same thing happened to you.
The Matsunaga VA Clinic provides care to Veterans who live on a number of islands in the Pacific Ocean, including the Hawaiian Islands. After attending my initial appointment at the clinic in mid-2007, I asked one of the attendants at the Check-in Desk where I could obtain a travel reimbursement claim form. I was told that the clinic does not pay travel reimbursement to patients who reside on Oahu. The Beneficiary Travel Section Supervisor confirmed what the attendant told me and he added that “no one on the island of Oahu was eligible for travel reimbursement.” Veterans traveling from the other islands to Honolulu for appointments at the Matsunaga Clinic were paid travel reimbursements.
Not satisfied with that answer, I contacted the Department of Defense Office of Veterans Services (OVS) by phone the next day. The Veterans Services Coordinator told me to “just do the math, no one on the island is eligible!” (He was referring to the distance patients lived from the clinic since reimbursement is based on distance traveled.) The next day, I wrote to Hawaii Senator (then a Representative) Maile Shimabukuro in order to discuss veterans benefits which veterans residing in other states received that Hawaii did not offer. One of those benefits was VA travel reimbursement. The Senator wrote to OVS and asked why the VA Clinic did not pay travel reimbursements. The Senator received a response from OVS wherein it was stated, “the VA will pay travel allowance to veterans who live 75 miles or more from the VA Clinic.”
I wrote the VA in D.C. the next day (14 November 2008) and they confirmed to me that there has never been a minimum distance requirement for VA travel reimbursement.
In accordance with the VA Beneficiary Travel Reimbursement Program the “rate of reimbursement” (including the forced “deductible”) determines the distance the patient must live from the Clinic prior to actually being determined eligible to receive any reimbursement. From 1978 until January 2009, the VA rate was a mere eleven (.11) cents per mile. Using that rate, less the $6.00 roundtrip deductible, a patient had to live at least 27.28 miles from the Clinic. (Explanation: .11 cents per mile times the roundtrip mileage of 54.54 miles equals $5.999, less the $6.00 deductible, leaving zero travel reimbursement). If, however, the patient made a fourth trip in the same month, the deductible did not apply and the patient would be owed the full .11 cents per mile for the total miles travelled.
There were, in fact, eligible patients who lived beyond the 27.28 mile distance and they should have been paid travel reimbursement! The number of patients who travelled four or more times per month is unknown, however, all of those patients should have been paid travel reimbursement, too!
When VA Secretary Shinsiki was able to negotiate a huge increase in the VA budget for 2004, the VA rate for reimbursement was raised to .415 cents per mile. That increase enabled VA patients who lived much closer than 27.28 miles eligible for VA travel reimbursement, so the Matsunaga Clinic was forced to start paying reimbursements to eligible Veterans residing on Oahu.
At a meeting to which I was invited on 14 July 2011, it was immediately apparent that no one at the Clinic was aware that the Veterans traveling four or more times during the same month were entitled to the full reimbursement rate, without a deductible. The Enrollment Coordinator surprisingly stated during the meeting, “I guess we shouldn’t have denied travel reimbursement claims!”
When it became apparent to the VA that I did not intend to “stand down” on my inquiry regarding this case of “mismanagement,” it seemed obvious to me that a “gag order” was issued to all VA commands, ordering them not to discuss the matter with me or anyone else. Phone calls, emails, voice mails, and personal letters were all ignored.
Senator Hirono was informed of the apparent “cover up” and she sent official inquiries to the VA, but no answers have been received.
The VA is aware that this error was committed, but they have failed to take responsibility for it. The Office of the Inspector General should thoroughly investigate this matter and determine which patients were wrongfully denied travel reimbursement and the VA should be ordered to make immediate restitution to the affected patients!
It is considered important to mention here that the VA Beneficiary Travel Reimbursement Program was quite unfair to Veterans when implemented in 1978 and requires correction! In January of 2012, I made contact with newly elected Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (HI) and suggested a bill which would correct those inequities. A proposed bill, co-sponsored by Congressman Walz, is now being drafted and should be introduced soon. The bill is intended to delete the requirement for a “deductible” and reinstate the practice of paying travel reimbursements to VA patients, in cash, on the same day of their appointments.
The VA patients were singled-out for the deductible; no other government agency had the deductible assessed on their travel reimbursement claims! Several dishonest VA patients abused the travel reimbursement system and patients were recently forced to use Electronic Fund Transfers (EFT) for their travel reimbursements. EFT reimbursements are taking months to reach the Veterans! Many of the patients need immediate reimbursement; some need the money just to afford the return trip to their homes.
Many deserving Veterans residing on Oahu, HI were cheated out of travel reimbursements and should receive restitution.
Where else has this occurred? One can only wonder.
Hopefully, the aforementioned bill correcting the inequities contained in the VA travel reimbursement program will make that benefit fair to Veterans!
Brooks Outland is a Korean and Vietnam war veteran. He volunteered to serve in Vietnam because he was keen to help the people of South Vietnam keep their freedom and their country from communist takeover by the North. After retiring Brooks and his wife spent eight years volunteering aboard his old battleship, USS Missouri (BB-63), before returning to the mainland in Arkansas in 2015.