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Ailing Veterans Regain Advocates

Government: Small county office that speeds access to federal benefits rebounds after post-bankruptcy austerities.

July 21, 1998|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Army Pfc. Felicia Hurst repeatedly sought help from the Orange County veterans agency, but all she got for months were notices to drive 55 miles out of her way to get help in Los Angeles County.

But this month, things changed.

The 28-year-old Westminster resident now can take a much shorter trip to Santa Ana, where the Orange County Veterans Service Office has been rejuvenated with more money after the county's bankruptcy-related budget cuts nearly killed it off.

For Hurst and about 229,000 vets in the county, many elderly or disabled, the revitalization of local veterans services means no more long drives to San Diego or Los Angeles, no more long-distance calls put on hold for interminable periods.

Funding for the local agency is back to prebankruptcy levels, and officials hope to reopen eight satellite offices that were closed in the wake of the 1994 county bankruptcy. Officials also plan to hire more claims agents and renew outreach efforts to inform vets of their rights.

County veterans agencies act as advocates for veterans trying to obtain medical, pension and other benefits from the federal government. The military does not inform them of such benefits while they are in the service, said officials in the Orange County office.

Many need help simply filling out the benefit forms, a long and complicated process.

"You go into the service, but when you are let out, you are out," said Hurst, who suffered a neck injury in a training operation near the end of her three-year stint in the Army. "The people at the veterans office are the spokespeople for the vets."

Disabled Korean War veteran Al Holtz, who lives in Leisure World in Laguna Hills, has been battling the federal government over medical benefits for the last 12 years. The county veterans office has helped the 70-year-old Holtz compile information to beef up his case so he could receive more benefits.

But budget cuts forced the county agency in 1996 to close its branch office in Leisure World, a gated retirement community where many residents are entitled to veterans benefits.

Holtz said he and many of his retired military friends are eager for the branch to reopen.

"It is a very critical service they offer," Holtz said.

Without the satellite office nearby, many friends who are veterans have resorted to calling Holtz for advice.

"I get about two to four calls a month from veterans asking me where they can go," he said. "A few weeks ago I got a call from a widow who didn't know what to do."

So, Holtz referred his friends to the Santa Ana office, hoping they would find transportation--and not be sent to Los Angeles or San Diego.

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The money shortage came at a particularly difficult time because veterans of three wars--World War II, Korea and Vietnam--are getting older and need more services. One-third of the county's veterans are 65 and older, said Ron Melendez, director of the county's veterans service office.

In addition, the closure of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station next July will leave a void for many vets who go to the base for medical exams, for information on programs and benefits or simply to socialize. The past four years have been long and difficult not only for vets but also for the county agency's beleaguered staff, which was reduced from 15 employees before the bankruptcy to a low of 7.

"We eliminated everything except the bare essentials," Melendez said. The few who were left in the Santa Ana office had their hands full with processing claims. They had no time to make house calls, he said.

The staff handles about 20,000 phone calls annually and interviews about 4,500 veterans a year, he said, and helped Orange County vets obtain $3 million in aid last year. Since federal and state funding for veterans services also has been cut dramatically, county funding is all the more critical, he said.

The veterans budget dropped from $531,582 before the bankruptcy to $300,000 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1996.

During those bleak times, Melendez and private veterans groups tried to raise funds from contributors but picked up only $10,000.

"It was very difficult," said Douglas Boeckler, a claims processor. "We just had to tell people the money was gone and the staffing was gone. We just did what we could do."

The department came perilously close to shutting down in 1996, but with some last-minute juggling of money from one county fund to another, the Board of Supervisors was able to keep it going, Supervisor Jim Silva said.

For this fiscal year, the supervisors saw an opportunity to restore funding to its previous levels and voted unanimously to allocate $569,191 to the department--the largest amount in five years.

Silva and Supervisor Charles V. Smith also plan to visit military officials in Washington later this month to discuss the possibility of keeping the El Toro commissary open.

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