- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dear Sgt. Shaft

The story told by Mrs. Viviane W. is not so different from my own, other than that she was able to get some assistance in her effort to receive an increase in survivor benefits.

My husband was on active duty and medically retired the same day he died. Upon his return from Iraq, he was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, and within eight months, he was admitted to intensive care, where his condition worsened. One week later, while he was still on active duty, I was told he was going to die within a few hours.

At the time of my husband’s death, I was told that my daughter and I would receive no benefits unless the Army medically retired him. He was placed on the TDRL, or Temporary Retired Disabled List. I now know that because he was placed in this retired status, we have been eliminated from other benefits and enhancements.

He was on active duty, and his injuries and illness already had been determined to have been incurred in the line of duty. He had not gone through a Medical Evaluation Board, and he was not able to communicate with me or the hospital staff. He had been placed on life support the whole time he was in the intensive care unit. As I stated earlier, I was told that he must be medically retired immediately or my daughter and I would not receive any benefits.

It is my understanding that there was a change and since then subsequent changes to the policies regarding the death of service members who are on active duty. The change, dated Dec. 28, 2001, enhanced and allowed Survivor Benefit Plan benefits to beneficiaries of members on active duty who died in the line of duty and are not yet retirement-eligible.

As Mrs. V stated, Congress passed amendments that changed the rules. I have been told that I am unable to receive these benefits because it was decided my husband needed to be retired before he died.

The laws had changed, but the Army was still using them. As a result, many service members’ families have been cheated out of benefits, money and services they should have received.

Thank you,

Veronica F

Dear Veronica:

My sources tell me that according to Army guidelines, when military members have a medical condition that renders them unfit to perform their required duties, they may be separated (or retired) from the military for medical reasons. The process to determine medical fitness for continued duty involves two boards. One is called the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB), and the other is called the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB).

Usually, the MEB/PEB process begins when a military member voluntarily presents himself or herself to the medical treatment facility (MTF) for medical care. Commanders may, at any time, refer a service member to the MTF if they think the member is medically unable to perform his or her military duties. The medical board consists of active-duty physicians (not involved in the care of the military member) who review the clinical case file and decide whether the service member should be returned to duty or should be separated or retired.

Service members with severe disabilities who are unable to participate actively in this process are not exempt. A Physical Evaluation Board liaison officer is assigned to counsel the soldier or, if the soldier is not competent, the next of kin on MEB/PEB findings, related rights and benefits. In addition, legal counsel is available to the service member and his or her family before signing the discharge documents. The time required to complete the MEB/PEB process varies from a few weeks to several months based on the type and severity of disability involved. The service member may appeal the determination provided by the medical board, but unfortunately, your husband died before he was able to contest the decision.

Recent legislative changes have increased the military benefits available to dependents of service members who died on active duty. These changes have been especially directed to service members who died as a direct result of combat training or while stationed in a war zone. Your husband’s illness in April 2003 is not considered by the military to have occurred while he was on active duty and is beyond the three-year statute of limitation for reconsideration. As a result, widows like you and their families are regrettably not eligible for consideration under these new regulations.

I urge Congress to review and hopefully remedy this gross inequity.

Shaft notes

Kudos to Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat and chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, for introducing the Veterans’ Emergency Fairness Act of 2009. This bill would enable the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to reimburse veterans enrolled with VA for the remaining costs of emergency treatment received outside of VA’s health care system if the veteran has outside insurance that covers just part of the cost. Under current law, VA can reimburse veterans or pay outside hospitals directly only if a veteran has no outside health insurance.

“Because insurance may not cover all costs, a trip to the ER can leave insured veterans financially crippled. My bill would enable VA to fill the gap for veterans whose outside insurance does not meet their needs,” Mr. Akaka said.

In addition to reimbursing veterans for future costs of emergency care, the bill would allow the secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide retroactive reimbursements back to May 2000, when the VA was first authorized generally to cover the cost of outside emergency care for veterans enrolled with VA for their care.

• Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, P.O. Box 65900, Washington, D.C. 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330, call 202/257-5446 or e-mail sgtshaft@bavf.org.

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