Veterans group looks to up outreach efforts for troops

WASHINGTON: With the largest influx of new veterans in 25 years now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal government is struggling to notify them and their families - particularly the injured - of all their privileges and benefits.

WASHINGTON: With the largest influx of new veterans in 25 years now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal government is struggling to notify them and their families - particularly the injured - of all their privileges and benefits.

The Departments of Defense (DOD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) say they are working closer than ever on the issue, hiring scores of new outreach counselors, printing vital messages on everything from pay stubs to newsletters, and producing PSAs to run in towns heavily populated with returning troops. "We are using all means available to reach out to these folks as they come back," said Jeff Phillips, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at VA.

But at least one veterans interest group says it's not enough and is taking matters into its own hands.

"I think they're doing the best they can with the resources they have," said Dave Autry, deputy national director of communications for Disabled American Veterans (DAV). "But these are two different sets of bureaucracies trying to work together, and, although there is some improvement in cooperation over the years, all the issues have not been ironed out yet."

Autry claims that VA and DOD are losing contact with too many injured veterans, who subsequently are not seeking out the medical care they are entitled to. Hence DAV is running its own outreach program to plug the gaps.

Those efforts include sending their own counselors to DOD medical facilities, producing their own PSAs, and activating a fleet of mobile offices to visit veteran-heavy towns.

But DAV says it is facing an obstacle even VA can't overcome - an unwillingness on behalf of the DOD to release veterans' names.

"We have been, in many cases, denied access to patients," said Autry. "DOD cites patient privacy issues under HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996] and also national security concerns, but we think that is an overzealous interpretation of the privacy rules. And as for national security, we've been around a long time. If there's anybody who's not a national security risk, it would be us."

Phillips said he has heard similar complaints about the Pentagon, but that VA was "doing a much better job of linking up and coordinating with DOD, which itself is resolved to doing a much better job."

The Pentagon did not return calls for comment.

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