More Rochester-area veterans being approved for healthcare, disability benefits
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — After years of struggling to get their care covered, hundreds of local veterans are now breathing a sigh of relief.
A beefed up County agency combined with changes to federal law have led to more approvals of disability and benefit claims.
Ashley James’ father is a Vietnam veteran and her sister is an Iraq War weteran. So, service is in her blood.
“I wanted to fight for my country. I wanted to serve, and I did,” she tells News10NBC.
In 2012, while in the U.S. Army, she fell ill.
“All of the sudden, I felt sick and I wasn’t getting any better,” she recalls. “So, they sent me to the hospital. I spent a lot of time in the hospital. They were like, ‘You’re blood pressure is out of control. We don’t want you to stroke out on us or have a heart attack so we’re going to have to send you home.'”
Not long after, James was medically discharged from the Army.
“I tried to go to the VA for some services and I couldn’t access them,” she says.
She tried to claim disability benefits on her own and was denied time and time again. James was eventually connected with someone at the Monroe County Veterans Service Agency.
“He was like, ‘You have good claims.’ He was like, ‘You have all the proof.’ He’s like, ‘No, we’re going to fight,’ so, I said, ‘Okay,’” she says.
Nick Stefanovic runs the Monroe County Veterans Service Agency.
“When a veteran gets denied, most of the time if that veteran is working by themselves, they’re done, that’s it, they don’t want to go through that process again,” he tells News10NBC.
That’s why Monroe County has beefed up the Veterans Service Agency over the last few years, bringing in more people to help fight the VA and get the claims approved.
The increase in staffing coincides with the passage of the PACT Act, which expands VA healthcare and benefits for Veterans exposed to burn pits, agent orange, and other toxic substances.
“The flood gates opened with the PACT Act and that’s a good thing,” Stefanovic says. “That means that veterans who’ve been getting denied for years are now getting approved.”
In many cases, those veterans are getting retroactive benefits.
“We’ve been bringing in awards of $300,000-$400,000. Our highest award was almost $1 million dollars in retro payment,” Stefanovic says. “Those are all awards that veterans would have given up on.”
As for James, after six previous denials, she recently got the call she’d been waiting and hoping for.
“He called me and was like, Aare you sitting down?’ I was like, ‘Yea.’ He’s like, ‘You won.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I was bawling, you know? This is a long road, and he was like, ‘I know, but you got it’ and I was able to get services with the VA immediately,” she says.