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Veterans Affairs trying to improve services, officials tell Congress

WASHINGTON—Department of Veterans Affairs officials told a congressional committee on Thursday that they're working to better inform veterans of potential pension benefits, as well as to boost the accuracy of the help lines that veterans from around the country call for assistance.

Speaking before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, VA officials admitted that their outreach efforts had failed to reach certain people who could benefit from its pension program. They also said that they were disappointed in a recent study detailing the bad information that veterans received when they called the agency for help.

"Veterans and their families deserve better than this," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chaired the hearing.

Knight Ridder reported in December that an estimated 2 million people were missing out on VA pensions aimed at helping low-income veterans or their widows. In another December story, Knight Ridder reported that people calling VA help lines were more likely to receive completely wrong answers than completely right ones. Thursday's disability subcommittee hearing was held in response to those articles.

The VA said it's working to improve communications between its benefits division and its health system. Starting May 1, the department will include in enrollment letters to certain new VA health-system patients information that lets them know that they might be eligible for pension benefits.

Knight Ridder had interviewed veterans who'd been part of the VA health system for years but didn't know that they also were eligible for the VA's pensions, which can be worth several hundred dollars a month.

"We think it will get to a lot of people who potentially do have pension eligibility," said Diane Fuller, a VA pension official.

On the help-line issue, the agency is expanding training for and oversight of the people who answer questions from veterans or their family members. The agency's own "mystery caller" program recently found that VA phone workers sometimes were rude or unhelpful, and that 45 percent of their answers were "completely incorrect" or "minimally correct."

In January, the VA notified its offices nationwide of the training and oversight increases and told the top official in each regional office to be directly involved in improving help-line performance.

"We must provide complete and accurate information to all those who call us for assistance," the department's Jack McCoy said in his prepared testimony, calling the efforts a "top priority" for the VA benefits division. A new online reference system for VA phone workers is scheduled to be available by the end of the year.

To read Knight Ridder's story on the VA's help line, go to

www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special(underscore)packages/veterans/past(underscore)coverage/13518366.htm

To read Knight Ridder's story on the VA's pensions, go to

www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special(underscore)packages/veterans/past(underscore)coverage/13468573.htm

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