Tele-town hall meetings new norm for Veterans Affairs

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The Veterans Benefits Administration aims to talk to hundreds of thousands of veterans in a series of town hall meetings, telephonic town hall meetings. They’ve been taking place every few days since last week with more to follow. VA Undersecretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to describe what he’s hearing and telling the veterans.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Lawrence, it’s good to have you back.

Paul Lawrence: Hey, great, Tom, thanks for having me back.

Tom Temin: How many people have you had engaged so far in these calls?

Paul Lawrence: I’ve done them in 13 states and it’s over 350,000 veterans. So it’s really surprisingly popular and get a lot of good questions. I enjoy talking to veterans because they pose the questions live. Hearing their issues, trying to solve them and then quite frankly, as leaders, trying to figure out how they happened to prevent that from happening again.

Tom Temin: So these, for them then, are places they call in by telephone, it’s not a video conference.

Paul Lawrence: That’s correct, it’s a toll free call and number and then we talked to the veterans. I speak for a few minutes about what’s going on. Then I open it up to questions. Try to get about 20 questions during these tele-town halls. Some I’ll answer because they’re general information. Many require follow up from our team because they’re case specific. We don’t want exchange personal information over the phone. So between us or the state Department of Veterans Affairs, we generally get in touch with the veteran literally within 24 hours and try to figure out how we can help them.

Tom Temin: And if you have hundreds of people on the phone line at one time, how do you know who to take a question from or who’s got a question?

Paul Lawrence: They identify what their question is, it’s screened and we try to pull them up on stuff that we think will be general interest. So for example, a lot of people would actually call and want to talk about their health care issues. I will be unable to you know, share much about that. So we try to pull those off and get them to our health care colleagues. But some that were very much interested in are some common questions about, you know, benefits, about the economic impact payments, the stimulus checks, right? About blue water Navy, stuff we know that’s on everyone’s mind, we try to do that. So if you don’t get through for questions, you at least get some information that will help you with your benefits.

Tom Temin: And aside from that number nine molar that is sensitive to ice, what in general are veterans asking about these days?

Paul Lawrence: Sure. So they’re asking a couple of questions. One is, you know, gee, “Do my benefits continue?” And of course, we’ve seen yes, they weren’t affected. “What about my claim?” And we explain, we’re processing right now, though, there are some differences. And I get a lot of folks asking about spousal benefits. You know, generally, the husband will say, “When I pass what happens to my wife?” Or the wife will call up and say, “My husband, you know, has recently passed, what am I eligible for?” So it made me realize in terms of that, we need to do much more communication around spousal benefits. So that’s something we’re working on. And finally, I always hit the crisis hotline. We worry about our veterans in crisis during social isolation, like now, so let me give that to you so your listeners have it. It’s 1-800-273-8255. And that’s the 24 hour-a-day, manned by people – not technology – to talk to our veterans in crisis and literally help them in person if needed.

Tom Temin: And by the way, these meetings these phone meetings take place during the evening hours?

Paul Lawrence: Oh, no. I’ve been doing them – it’s funny because that was what we were thinking, of course, when people were at work, but now they’re not, as you know, they’re all home. So I’m generally doing about 4 or 5 o’clock local time, because that’s when people are still ready to deal with the phone before dinner. So this weekend, for example, I’m dealing with Iowa and Oklahoma, the veterans there, so it’ll be at 4 o’clock their time. And we found that works out pretty well.

Tom Temin: And do you have any sense of the demographics of who’s calling? Are they recent veterans? Are they the older ones? Are you able to get any information about who’s most vital interested to hear from you?

Paul Lawrence: So I don’t have any scientific information. But I will tell you based on you know, self identification, if people get on the phone say, “Hey, you know, I’m an 80-year-old veteran, I served in Korea,” that’s pretty obvious. I feel that this is getting me access to many of our elderly veterans, although there is a fair amount of folks who identify by saying they served in post 9/11 conflicts. So what I’m learning from this is the phone is a great way to get to our elderly veterans who, you know, admit often on the phone call they’re not great on technology, and they need some personalized service. So it really is helping me think hard about the secretary’s charge to us to reach hard-to-reach veterans. So I always thought about that as how do you get the internet to parts of Alaska. Now, I think more about how do we get them on the phone so we can help them?

Tom Temin: Yes, I think we all can speak from experience that when you’re doing these Zoom-type meetings, it can be challenging to get some of the old folks on there so that you can see them and they can see you. We’re speaking with Dr. Paul Lawrence, the undersecretary for Benefits at the Veterans Affairs Department. And of course, all the action seems to be with the health side of Veterans Affairs, but has the coronavirus, affected operations or affected what people are seeking from the benefit side?

Paul Lawrence: Well, yes and no, it is different. We used to generally work in offices, and so now about more than 97% of our employees are telework. So we’re telework enabled. So that’s working out really, really well. Ironically, since there’s not many things for folks to do when they’re home working but work, they’re not going on vacation, and can’t really go out and run errands. We’re seeing some of our highest productive times ever. So that’s certainly positive for veterans. We know that this period of time tends to bring from our history, more folks apply for the GI Bill. Unemployment looks high – I think I’ll stay in school. And more folks apply for benefits so we are preparing for more benefits applications was receiving now, but we expect more once people return to the new normal and better appreciate the situation.

Tom Temin: And by the way, what are spousal benefits, on upon –

Paul Lawrence: Oh they’re actually very – yeah, they’re actually very generous there can be – a lot has to do with the veteran. When he or she served, what their conditions of their injury are, but it ranges from quite simply an allowance for burial, accrued benefits that he or she hasn’t been paid yet. There can be a pension or tax-free payment. So it’s somewhat based on the situation, which is why we generally talk broadly about it like I just did with you. But then we follow up with a particular veteran or spouse to understand their exact situation. So we are accurate in what we describe to them.

Tom Temin: And is there anything new to report with the Blue Water Navy Act? I know you’re several months into that one, I guess almost a year now.

Paul Lawrence: Yeah, we’re a year in thinking about it. But we actually just began you’re right on the several months – on Jan. 1 granting claims. So we are granting claims that has continued. We’ve gotten something like 50,000 applications and I think the last time I saw numbers we had granted 15,000. There are just – others are in progress, so it’s not quite a comparison – and paid out several hundred million dollars in retroactive benefits. So we continue to encourage everybody [if] they think they’re covered by blue water Navy conditions to apply for benefits. We’re very much worried, and I forgot if we talked about this last time, with finding to veterans, or if they pass, the spouse who might have been disconnected from the military. So kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews who remember about a situation so that we make sure this group or their survivors, you know, receive these benefits.

Tom Temin: I imagine with reaching hundreds of thousands, maybe a million people or so by the time you’re done with the phone calls, those people all know other people. So maybe that’s a way of spreading the word that hasn’t come back to boomerang back to you, yet?

Paul Lawrence: Yeah, that’s our hope. Often, generally, one time per session a person will call up and say I’m a blue water Navy veteran. Tell me more about this, or gee, “My (generally) husband, you know was in the Navy and he passed. Am I eligible?” But that’s exactly it. I generally take a moment in every tele-town hall to go out of my way to describe things like I just, we just spoke about. So folks know this is available now. And they know if anybody who might be eligible to figure out how we connect with them.

Tom Temin: And tell us about the solid Start Program, what it is and what the progress there is?

Paul Lawrence: Sure. So Solid Start is a series of phone calls to our newest veterans, they’ve just left the military in their first year, three calls – one after 90 days, one about the half-year mark and one towards the end of the year – to just check in with our veterans, our new veterans, and help them establish a relationship with VA. So the person who calls are some of our most trained call agents, and they can access all the resources of VA. And the phone calls are really driven by the veteran. So we’ll say hey, we’re here. What would you like to talk about? Could be benefits and how you access your benefits, it could be questions about health care. There have been some questions about mental health issues, but it’s been a very small amount that were referred to the crisis lines. It’s generally how do I connect with VA and earn these benefits? Because we worry when they’re leaving the military and they’re going through some of the transition systems, they will not always remember this. So it’s been very well received so far, a much greater percentage than we imagined are actually taking the phone call because I don’t know about you, Tom, but I don’t take phone calls on my cell phone. I don’t know what it is. So now people are doing that. And they’re engaging. And we’re getting good feedback from our surveys. So we encourage everybody who’s listening to this if you’ve been out 90 days and you haven’t gotten a phone call, it’s probably because we don’t have your contact information. So please reach back out to us and make sure we have your contact information.

Tom Temin: Dr. Paul Lawrence is the undersecretary for Benefits at the Veterans Affairs Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Paul Lawrence: Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.