Last Saturday, hours before sunrise, North Carolina Veterans formed a line outside Goodwill Industries in Winston-Salem, N.C., to speak directly with VA employees about the status of their benefits and other VA services. This free weekend claims clinic was the second of its kind, and was fully staffed by employees of the Winston-Salem Veterans regional benefits office.
More than 120 VA employees and volunteers (including dozens of claims processors) soon followed, each firing up her computer, ready for what would be a busy day. In fact, Winston-Salem Director Cheryl Rawls opened the doors 45 minutes early to accommodate the early arrivals.
“This is our opportunity to give back to the community, restore trust and actually have our [North Carolina] Veterans sit down and talk with someone about the process of filing a claim,” said Rawls.
One by one, each Veteran and their family were greeted by VA employees and shared the reason for their visit. Most Veterans wanted to check the status of their claim, while others were interested in other VA services, like vocational rehabilitation and employment counseling and Veterans Health Administration eligibility. VA even offered two education sessions for those interested in learning more about the appeals process, in addition to a town hall meeting featuring the director and other local VA leadership.
Based on the reason for the visit, each Veteran was personally escorted to the right individual or team to discuss their situation. Each claims processor was able to speak with a Veteran while simultaneously viewing their electronic folder located in our claims processing software, known as the Veterans Benefits Management System.
For additional support, dozens of claims processors were able to communicate directly with volunteer employees based at the regional office (10 minutes away) to help expedite and authorize claims that were ready to rate on the spot.
One attending U.S. Army Veteran, Kevin Blackshear, was no stranger to VA benefits, as he has already used a VA home loan and the Post 9-11 GI Bill to fund his education. However, after talking with an employee who looked at his claim, he was granted an increase in his disability rating from 80 to 100 percent totally and permanently right on the spot.
“I’ve found that if you do your research and ask the right questions and are prepared with the right material, you’ll have a smooth experience with the VA,” said Blackshear, who now works as a physical evaluation board liaison officer at Fort Bragg, counseling Soldiers through transition options if found unfit to return to duty.
Blackshear’s experience was not uncommon throughout the course of the day. Many Veterans left satisfied with either getting their questions answered or in attaining a better understanding of the process and how to navigate other VA services.
As each hour rolled by, employees stood guard to accommodate and support every Veteran who walked in the door. Over the course of 11 hours, VA employees personally assisted 525 Veterans and their families; awarded retroactive payments totaling more than $500,000; and assisted seven homeless Veterans.
While the event was a success for our Veterans and their family members, we want them to understand that they don’t have to wait for a claims clinic to meet with VA employees. Winston-Salem’s public contact office (and each of VA’s 56 regional benefits offices) is available every weekday during normal business hours to meet with Veterans to discuss benefit options.
Winston-Salem is leading the charge with institutionalizing this claims clinic model. It’s just one way VA is looking to improve how we can provide better customer service to our Veterans, and their families and Survivors.