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VA center forum helps detail benefits available

LOUIS GIGNAC, A vocational development specialist at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center, talks about the employment assistance that might be available to veterans at a presentation on veterans benefits Thursday at Bay College West in Iron Mountain.

IRON MOUNTAIN — The common message stressed at Thursday’s presentation on veterans benefits: Apply, don’t assume.

“We always tell veterans, ‘File the claim,'” said John Drumsta, a rating coach with the Veterans Administration’s regional office in Detroit.

Even if turned down in the past, a veteran may learn that laws or criteria for eligibility have since changed, Drumsta told a crowd of about 40 at Bay College West, where the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center hosted the session.

He brought up as an example the Vietnam Blue Water Navy Veterans, a new law that takes effect Jan. 1 and expands the potential range for Agent Orange exposure to those who served on vessels that came within 12 nautical miles of Vietnam or Cambodia.

That can make many more veterans eligible for disability compensation if suffering from conditions that can be related to Agent Orange exposure, Drumsta said. The VA in recent years has added to that list diabetes, heart disease and prostate cancer.

BRAD NELSON, CHIEF of the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center’s Office of Public Affairs and Veteran Engagement, opens the veteran benefits presentation Thursday evening at Bay College West. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photos)

More than 80,000 veterans are expected to file new claims under the change, he said.

Those who might now qualify can apply online at www.va.gov, work with an accredited VA representative or agent, or go to a VA regional office for assistance. In Iron Mountain, an appointment can be set up by calling 906-774-3300, ext. 34800 or 34802.

The VA also can offer veterans assistance in finding and maintaining employment as they transition from military service to the private sector, said Louis Gignac, a vocational development specialist at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center. This Compensated Work Therapy, or CWT, can include job coaching and vocational training, plus more specialized help such as transitional work for those who struggle to stay in a job or supported employment for individuals with mental health issues.

VA officials also reminded those getting ready to travel south for winter that the VA has a traveling vets coordinator to help ensure continuity of care at a VA center in the state where they spend the winter.

Veterans also were told if emergency or urgent care is needed at a non-VA facility while away from this area, it should be covered but the person must contact the VA within 72 hours. They passed out dog tags with a number to report: 844-698-2311.

One veteran asked whether the VA would prescribe medical marijuana or CBD oil for treatment, given the growing popularity and its legal status in Michigan. But because medical marijuana is not legal in all states — including neighboring Wisconsin — it is not one of the “proven practices” the VA center will employ in treatment, said Dr. Mark Kadowaki, acting chief of staff at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center.

Still, the VA is aware some patients already are using medical marijuana and CBD oil, Kadowaki said. “You should feel free to talk to your physician” about that use, he added, as it might make a difference in other prescriptions.

And the time might come when both are adopted as proven practices, said Brad Nelson, chief at the center’s Office of Public Affairs and Veteran Engagement. He noted the VA center now offers acupuncture and massage therapy.

The Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center tries to have some type of quarterly session, be it presentation or town hall format, for area veterans to learn about the latests developments in their benefits and medical treatment, Nelson said.

These forums are streamed live on the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center’s Facebook page and posted for later viewing for those unable to attend, Nelson said. That’s not uncommon, as the Iron Mountain facility serves the most rural population of any VA center in the nation, with roughly 99 percent of its veterans living outside an urban area.

Yet the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center ranks seventh in overall quality among the nation’s more than 150 VA centers, and rates second in terms of patient satisfaction, Nelson said.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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