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Utah veterans pinched by switch in VA travel reimbursements

Published March 30, 2013 11:07 am

Change • As V.A. goes paperless, some say they have to wait for cash for basic needs.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A U.S. Treasury mandate that federal agencies stop handing out cash and paper checks is hitting some veterans, such as Linda Jones of Ogden, hard.

Patients who go to Veterans Affairs doctor appointments or classes have always been able to collect their travel reimbursement in cash on the spot at the V.A. hospital or clinics.

For many low-income vets, the cash meant gas for the tank — or bus fare — home.

But no more.

Since March 1, the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City and its 11 clinics in the region have been complying with the Treasury mandate.

That means requiring V.A. patients to accept direct deposit into their checking accounts or, if they have Direct Express Debit MasterCards that receive disability payments, into those accounts.

The problem, said Jones, a Vietnam era-veteran, is the money is not landing in the bank or on the debit cards fast enough.

"They said two weeks ago there was a glitch and we'd have money by Friday or Monday," said Jones. "Even that is too long when people don't have gas to get home."

Jill Atwood, spokeswoman for the medical center, acknowledged there have been delays in the early weeks of the change.

"Going from paper to an electronic system is a process, and with any change there is a transition period," she said. "We are working hard to streamline that process and get veterans paid as quickly as possible."

Checks are being sent to the homes of some veterans for whom the electronic system is not yet set up, she said. Within 10 days or so, she added, veterans will see their electronic reimbursements five to seven business days after a visit to the VA.

Jones said she had to borrow money from a friend to pay her transit fares home to Ogden, and on one visit to the V.A. pleaded hardship in order to get a cash travel reimbursement. "I had two pennies in my wallet."

"They didn't warn hardly anybody and that is horrible," said Jones, who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

Jones goes weekly to the V.A. in Salt Lake City for meditation-exercise classes, typically by bus and FrontRunner but sometimes on a UTA Paratransit van.

She is reimbursed $30.85 for the round trip — 41.5 cents a mile.

Some vets, she said, are saying they will skip appointments because they can't front the money for trips to the V.A. and then wait weeks for reimbursement. "It's hurting not just me, but the other vets."

Atwood said that no veterans truly in need of cash to get home are turned away. "We realize not everyone has gotten the word," she said.

Those veterans who don't have checking accounts or who don't want direct deposit into their checking accounts will be mailed reimbursement checks through much of the year.

By January, their reimbursements will go on Direct Express Debit MasterCards, once that system is implemented in the Salt Lake area, Atwood said.

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KristenMoulton