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KARE 11 Investigates: VA continues high-risk exams during COVID-19 crisis

Lawsuit claims the VA is forcing high-risk veterans to attend in-person benefits exams with private contractors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ST PAUL, Minn — “I was told I needed to go into New York City next week to get an in-person benefits exam,” said a 30-year-old Stamford, Connecticut Army Veteran. “I said, ‘I can’t do that for obvious reasons.’”

That veteran spoke on-camera and on-the-record but asked not to be named over fears it would negatively impact his benefits claim. He’s part of a new lawsuit that states the Department of Veterans Affairs is risking veterans’ lives during the COVID-19 crisis by forcing veterans to attend pension exams or risk losing their benefits.

“It’s an unnecessary risk,” said attorney Harold Hoffman who filed the lawsuit against the VA. “It’s not just risky, there is no reason for the risk!” he added.

In order to limit coronavirus exposure for vulnerable veterans, the Veterans Benefits Administration closed its 56 regional offices, including the St. Paul office on March 19th.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a released statement, “VA is expanding existing technologies to remain accessible to Veterans, service members and their families.”

One of the promised safety measures is that in-person exams would be replaced with virtual – tele-compensation and pension or “tele-C&P” – exams.

But veterans across the country, some of them high-risk for coronavirus infection, say they’re still being ordered to attend in-person benefits exams with VA contractors.

Tom West, an Army National Guard veteran from Portsmouth, Virginia tells KARE 11 he was ordered to attend a benefits exam on April 1st at a VA contractor in Virginia Beach.

He has Behcet’s Syndrome, a chronic, progressive, disabling auto-inflammatory disease which makes him extremely high-risk for COVID-19.

“I’m high risk for any kind of infection,” he said.

Credit: Tom West
Army National Guard Veteran Tom West

West is also part of the new lawsuit which states, “the VA has caused and continues to cause immediate—and potentially irreparable—harm to veterans, their families, and their communities by scheduling risky VA exams violating nationwide and local coronavirus social distancing guidelines.”

“Honestly, we think it’s pretty tone deaf that they’re sending at-risk veterans to at-risk places at this moment when they could just wait a few months,” said Hoffman, an attorney with the Veterans Legal Advocacy Group.

The petition in the case asks the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to order the VA to stop performing in-person exams immediately for veterans in coronavirus hotspots and for veterans that have health conditions that put them at greater risk for the coronavirus.

“Every day this petition goes unaddressed, the VA sends veterans onto NYC subways in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic,” the court filings state.

“Veterans attending in-person exams are putting themselves, their examiners, and anyone they come near at risk. And they have to — or risk losing their benefits,” said Hoffman.

Credit: KARE
U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C.

QTC, the VA contractor mentioned in the lawsuit, in connection with scheduling a veteran’s exam in New York City next week, sent KARE 11 a statement which reads, “Unfortunately we cannot comment on this and refer you to our customer at the VA for additional comment.”

KARE 11 has reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs seeking comment and is awaiting response.

Meanwhile, Congress is starting to ask questions too.

A staffer with the House Committee on Veterans Affairs tells KARE 11, “The Committee definitely has concerns that high risk veterans are still required to come in for in-person compensation and pension exams, despite the possibility of virtual exams. We’re left wondering: why hasn’t VA halted all in person C&P exams in light of this crisis?”

If you’re one of the veterans who may be impacted by VA scheduling benefits exams during the COVID-19 crisis, contact the team working on this investigation at: investigations@kare11.com

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