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Hundreds of thousands of veterans spurn free benefits

Nearly half of eligible ex-service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are snubbing free, federal health care they earned in uniform because many harbor “huge mistrust” of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, contends a leading veterans advocacy group.

About 1.5 million men and women who served in those wars have since separated from the U.S. military. Among those eligible to access VA medical help, only 55 percent of veterans have done so through the third quarter of 2012, VA figures show.

“It’s because the VA has a branding problem, an image problem,” said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American (IAVA), which has more than 200,000 members.

For many younger veterans, Tarantino said, the issue that has most sullied the VA’s reputation is the average time it takes to complete the disability-compensation claims submitted by wounded veterans. The average wait for that money has grown to 272.3 days, or about nine months, a 10-day increase from early December, according a federal website.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last year vowed to shrink the so-called “VA backlog” to 125 days by 2015 as the agency finishes transitioning to a digital processing system.

“Any time we ever hear about the VA, what do we hear? That the backlog is astronomically high. Or, that the VA is late in providing GI Bill (tuition) checks. It’s not an antagonistic relationship. It’s: ‘Oh, there goes the VA again; they still don’t have it together.’ Meanwhile, the VA is pathologically incapable of telling its own story,” said Tarantino, who uses a VA medical center. The former Army captain spent time in Iraq, earning the Bronze Star. “The problem is there is a huge mistrust of the VA.

“And what’s unsettling is the VA is an outstanding health care system. But they have not done a good job to explain to the American people what it is they do or offer,” Tarantino added. “This is business 101. You can have the greatest product in the world but if people don’t know about or trust your product, you have a bad product.”

Asked if Tarantino’s assessment is fair, a VA spokesman responded to NBC News with an email listing the agency’s latest work: bolstering mental-health staffers by 49 percent, opening 80 additional clinics, enticing clients through social media, and launching initiatives that allow ex-troops to chat with doctors online or talk with “peer-to-peer specialists” with combat experience.

“Although we have made many improvements, there is still work to do,” read a response emailed by Mark Ballesteros, a VA spokesman. He also cited the VA’s shift to “a new model of health care” called Patient Aligned Care Teams (PACT), a “patient-centered, team-based” and “data-driven” system.

Advanced tactics, modern buildings and clever acronyms aside, the VA faces a long, tough sell with its youngest audience, according to interviews with several post-9/11 veterans. 

Pete Chinnici, 26, personifies the type of a public-relations damage VA officials must patch before forging deeper inroads within the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran communities.

After completing Marine Corps duty in Iraq from 2005 to 2007, Chinnici applied for VA health care in Phoenix. He’d been diagnosed with post-combat stress and hearing loss. But six months after stepping inside the pipeline, Chinnici said a VA employee told him his entire medical file was missing and that he’d need to start over.

“After having two friends who went through the VA process – it took one 9 months and the other almost a year (to gain entry) – and then being told they’d lost the paperwork, I never went back,” Chinnici said.

Three time zones east, another Marine, Alex Hill, visited the VA medical center in Brockton, Mass. after exiting Iraq in 2009, he said, “without a scratch.”

“The VA just wasn’t for me: the unmotivated staff members, the piles of bureaucracy,” said Hill, 26. “I also have objections with how they treat veterans by solving every problem they come across with a bottle of pills.”

The VA hopes to win back veterans like Hill and Chinnici, in part, via its 151 Facebook pages (which have more than 623,000 combined “likes”), its 581 posted YouTube videos, its 75 Twitter feeds, and its VAntage Point blog, which offers 500-plus articles authored by VA employees, veterans and family members, said VA spokesman Ballesteros.

“We’re reaching out to provide veterans with more options for care and more access to health care providers than ever,” Ballesteros wrote in the emailed statement. “Now patients can choose to come in for a face-to-face appointment with their doctor or avoid driving long distances, and instead interact with a provider through our (secure, online) telehealth programs.”

More than 380,000 veterans received “telehealth” services during the 2011 fiscal, he added.

But on the primary VA Facebook page that Ballesteros touted, there are many unhappy hints of the agency’s steep climb to win fresh hearts. On Jan. 19, Janet Woodworth Jennings posted there: “Hire VA doctors who actually care and know what they are doing.” Her comment was promptly “liked” by Luanne Pruesner-Van De Velde, who added: “I AGREE...Hire EMPLOYEES that care about Vets - Period!!!”

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