Jim Strickland's Mailbag: Volume #09 for 2009
NOTE:  Letters in my mailbag are reprinted just as they come to me. Spelling and grammar are left as is and only small corrections are made to improve readability, ensure anonymity or delete expletives that may offend some readers. This is not legal advice. You should always seek the advice of an attorney who is qualified in Veterans' law before you make any decisions about your own benefits.
02.17.09
Letter:
Jim,
Happy New Year NEWS! I just received a letter from the VA dated 4 Feb 2009. It says "we reviewed your letter of Oct 1, 2008 and your 2006 eligibility to continue to receive compensation at the 100 percent rate for Individual Unemployability. The evidence of record shows no adjustments are necessary."

Other than the boiler plate comments of contact us if you have any questions that is it.

As you can imagine, I am thrilled and thoroughly stress relieved. I wanted you to know that your assistance was immeasurable in my efforts to convince them that a reduction in income would really put me in a bind. Thanks from the bottom of my heart and Keep up the good work.


Reply:
I've been writing often about the hazards of overpayment, debt and recoupment. Any time there is an error that results in the veteran receiving more money than is owed, it's likely that it will eventually be discovered and VA will issue you a "Notice of Proposal" to somehow take back what they allege is owed.

The veteran who wrote the above note to me was contacted in September 2008 and notified that because of money he earned working a few years earlier, his Individual Unemployability rating might be removed. Along with the change in his rating, the benefit he had been paid since the time of his employment would have to be repaid.

Although his employment was lucrative at the time, it was temporary and short term. He didn't report it as he's never received a VA Form 4140.

Within a few days of notice from VA the veteran contacted me. In about 3 days after, following my instructions, he had posted a certified letter to his VARO notifying them that he disagreed with their proposal. He requested that no actions to reduce his rating or to recoup his benefit occur until he had exhausted his appeal options. He requested a personal hearing. He requested a review by the Committee on Waivers and Compromises.

Then he explained that he had never received that VA Form 4140 and that he would have reported the income had the VA mailed him the form. He pointed out that he had reported the income to IRS and paid taxes so he wasn't attempting to hide it from anyone.

Finally, he pointed out the regulation that allows a veteran who is receiving IU benefits to work so long as the work doesn't exceed 12 continuous months or otherwise qualify as "gainful" employment. He worked once for a 6 month period, was unable to continue due to his service connected benefit and by the VA's own rules, that's acceptable with no penalty.

That one letter fixed the issue for him. The power of a single, simple, brief, well written and factual letter to VA is awesome to see. This veteran didn't make a series of panicked phone calls to the No-Help Line nor did he contact a VSO or take any other action but to write the VARO and wait patiently.

In recoupment actions as well as in all other dealings with your VA, a focused plan that you carry out to the letter is the way to ensure success. Play by their rules, play hard, remain calm...you'll reap positive benefits quicker than most do.
Letter:
Jim,
I am 100S/C (since 1982), and permanent and total since 1989. Approximately 3-4 years ago out of the blue I received a letter from my RO for an overpayment in my compensation of somewhere I believe around $33,000. I called a friend of mine at a VARO (not my home RO), and he said they had removed my I.U. supposedly for faillure to return an employment questionnaire.

I had not received this from the VA for years and didn't receive one prior to the reduction. I received no prior notification of the reduction nor how to appeal, etc. A 119 taken by my friend resolved the issue, or so I thought.

I moved a few months ago, but received another letter from now asking for $3.034.00 (can only guess this may be a result of a VA removing a dependent. Anyway, just a reminder that although we really think were through with ineptitude at the VA, these things will always reara their head. (Signed) Volunteer Serv. Officer


Reply:
Your email confuses me and gives me great concern. You signed off as a "Volunteer Service Officer" of a well known Veterans Service Organization. However, as a VSO you've allowed VA to penalize you for issues that you could have and should have prevented. If your own compensation is in such a shambles, what sort of service can you be providing for others?

In some detail; You haven't received a VA Form 4140 "for years" but you should know the importance of that and as a VSO you should have a supply of the forms or know where to find them. You allege no advance notice while simultaneously telling me "I received a letter from my RO for an overpayment in my compensation of somewhere I believe around $33,000...". I can only guess that was the letter with the proposal to reduce, etc.

Your reaction was to call a "friend" in a Regional Office far away from your own...the office where your file resides and where that letter came from. You allege that this friend completed a 119 and that "resolved the issue".

For the life of me I can't imagine why you would believe that the completion of a VA Form 119 ( www.vba.va.gov/ro/west/albuq/forms/Vaf-119.rtf )  would resolve an issue of your $33,000.00. The 119 is only a statement of contact between a veteran and a VA employee. It isn't an appeal and has very little meaning but to take up some space in your folder. That would be if your folder were where the 119 was completed but it was a thousand miles away. That 119 is probably in a desk drawer in a far away land.

You don't say if the issue was ever resolved or if you are still 100% IU or if they took all that money from you. Later you say you "can only guess" at why the VA is taking (you call it "asking") another $3.034.00 from you. Since you used a period rather than a comma to separate the numbers, I don't know if the VA is taking three dollars and thirty four cents or thirty thousand plus dollars this time. I know that many don't believe in spelling and punctuation...I'm one of the dinosaurs who try to get it correct each time. A little error like that can have huge repercussions down the road.

While I'm sure that your intentions are good and that you mean well and you want to help other veterans, your email reinforces the reasons I caution veterans to choose a VSO very carefully. Each and every word you wrote to me defined the wrong way to handle your compensation benefit, both before and after it was threatened. Rather than abiding by the rules, you wing it with some buddy at an office 1000 miles from home. The rest of your story goes quickly downhill from there.

(Sigh)

There are moments when I wonder why any RSVR would want the job of sorting out issues of veterans who want monetary compensation for their slightly red eyes and who may be represented by volunteer service officers who don't seem to understand the system. Today I stand in sympathy for the VA RSVR employee who may have to encounter all this.

I feel for you brother.
Letter:
Jim,
Can you look at this VA Decision. I do not understand why on the same exam he said septum midline and septum deviated.....however I was claiming a deviated septum. Then I had an ENT exam 7 months after this C&P and he said "septum is straight" I've gone round and round.........If in 2003 I had septoplasty (sinus surgery) and retired 12/31/2003 prior to this I had sleep apnea symtpoms and my doctor said "consider sleep study "

I am approved for allergic rhinitis at the goose egg 0. I asked my sleep doctor about OSA and he said "many patients have it for years before it is every diagnoses", when I asked him if I could have had it while on active duty he said "yes" when I asked if I could get this documented or an IMO he did not say a word and wrapped this up. But with his write up he said "primarly on the basis of excessive body weight with contributions from nasal obstruction and mandibular retrodisplacement" The weight I can support having spinal issues, being on "serval physcial profiles because of this condition c5-c6" per the VA Rating decision.

I also had steriod shots for my c5-c6 problem, I am rated at 10 for this. I don't know if these series of 3 shots can cause weight gain or not. Is there any cance getting this approved of weight (because weight was noted while on active duty of "gain" and I went to weight management), I never had a problem with my weight before, they can look thru my record.........not a problem, until 2000-2003. I had these marks on me that a doctor thought were spider bites..........the treated for 4 days, I went back because of bad bad pain, I couldn't raise my hand, I was moving from my apartment to my home and was in tears because I could not clean. We the other doctor said it was shingles............he also said since I was on a steriord (prednosone) vs. the correct treatment of antibodic that I would have to get past thisso he game me like 20 prednosone to taper off, he did give me tylenal#3 for my pain........this was horrible but it did end.

I'm trying to work with what I have in my SMR because I don't have the money to pay for these advocates and really confused on how I can get anywhere with the dcotor once they say this. I don't really see this doctor anymore because I am on Tricare Prime he only was to read my sleep study and get my CPAP.

Also do you know what "SAA" is when they did my septoplasty surgery they put preop and post opp SAA.


Reply:
SAA...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serum_amyloid_A

"Deviated" may refer to a communication through the septum...it can be deviated but still straight or midline.

I don't see the service connection for most of your complaints. I also don't see the "disability". It appears that VA believes that you're gaming the system for monetary benefits. I agree.

Your conditions are marginal and the sort of thing that most wouldn't consider disabling. You snore...most of us do, particularly if we are obese. Allergies are a fact of life. Your back probably hurts because of your marked obesity.

I've previously offered you good advice and you're continuing to beat the system for more money for some very minor complaints. I remind everyone that just because you have a given condition doesn't mean that you have a disabling condition. If you have "Allergic Conjunctivitis" join the crowd. My eyes get red with pollen, smog and dust but that hardly rises to a level of being disabling and the fault of my military service.

I agree with the VA's denials. A small scar on your leg from the removal of a cyst doesn't get you much sympathy from me.

To pursue your complaints in the future interferes with the processing of benefits for a deserving veteran. While you worry about your red eyes and that little scar on your leg, another veteran awaits adjudication with a serious disability he acquired on duty .

If you continue, eventually someone at VA will reexamine your existing benefits and you'll risk a reduction. I advise you to drop it until you have more serious issues than these.
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