ST PAUL, Minn — Veterans in Minnesota and across the country are receiving new messages cancelling scheduled in-person benefits exams due to health risks during the coronavirus crisis.
The action comes days after KARE 11 exposed how veterans were still being ordered to attend in-person Compensation and Pension (C&P) exams with private contractors or risk having their benefits claims denied or drastically reduced.
Those high-risk exams were still being scheduled despite pleas posted by Department of Veterans Affairs officials asking veterans to “consider telemedicine” and “accept social distancing as a requirement for the next number of weeks.”
“I was told that I had to show up,” said Tom West, an Army National Guard veteran from Portsmouth, Virginia about his April 1st exam.
He has Behcet’s Syndrome, a chronic, progressive, disabling auto-inflammatory disease which makes him extremely high-risk for COVID-19. Despite that, the veteran says he was left with no choice but to ignore his state’s shelter in place order and go out in public to get his non-emergent pension exam.
“The way the VA system works is if you don’t show up for your appointment, the VA is entitled to automatically deny your claim,” he said. “So, I didn’t have a choice.”
West is part of a federal lawsuit filed last week by the Veterans Legal Advocacy Group 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.
One of Hoffman’s other clients was ordered to travel from Stamford, Connecticut into New York City, the heart of the nation’s coronavirus outbreak, this week to attend a benefits exam.
“It’s not just risky, there is no reason for the risk!” Hoffman said.
Hoffman says he has not received any official notification from the VA, but in a statement to KARE 11 Monday afternoon the VA confirmed that it has "directed all compensation and pension examination vendors to immediately stop holding in-person examinations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic until further notice."
The order was issue Friday April 3, the same day KARE 11 exposed the problem.
The statement continued: "VA C&P examinations will continue during this time using alternate methods that do not involve an in-person appointment, such as telehealth, where possible. If an in-person appointment is required, the examination request will be held until further notice without penalty to Veterans."
Veterans who had pending pension exams, began receiving voicemails and text messages over the weekend that state; “Due to coronavirus, VA has ordered QTC to postpone in-clinic exams until further notice.”
QTC is a private business with multi-billion dollar a year contracts with the VA to do benefits exams. The company changed its website over the weekend to state, per the VA order, it is postponing all in-clinic exams until further notice.
“That decision is going to end up saving some people’s lives,” said Hoffman.
“Every day that this goes on, every day that someone isn’t going to an exam, there are less people exposed…ultimately it saves lives.”
Veterans can learn more about “Virtual C&P Examination Alternatives” here: https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USVAVBA/bulletins/2851edf
Internal Department of Veterans Affairs emails reviewed by KARE 11 indicate VA has rushed to set up a tracking system to identify every time a veteran reports that VHA or a vendor told them incorrectly that they must report in-person for an examination during the coronavirus pandemic.
If you’re one of the veterans impacted by VA scheduling benefits exams during the COVID-19 crisis, contact the team working on this investigation at: email@example.com
KARE 11’s coverage of the coronavirus is rooted in Facts, not Fear. Visit kare11.com/coronavirus for comprehensive coverage, find out what you need to know about the Midwest specifically, learn more about the symptoms, and see what companies in Minnesota are hiring. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215. And get the latest coronavirus updates sent right to your inbox every morning. Subscribe to the KARE 11 Sunrise newsletter here. Help local families in need: www.kare11.com/give11.
The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.