This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to the Northwest Florida Daily News or the Panama City News Herald .
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Veterans Affairs under secretary for benefits spent nearly an hour Friday afternoon with Florida veterans and veterans’ spouses, taking a number of questions while also highlighting two relatively new VA programs.
►RELATED: Physically, not socially distanced - Locals find ways to celebrate milestones in a pandemic
During part of the Friday conference call, Under Secretary Paul Lawrence urged people who will be leaving, or have recently left, military service to take advantage of the Solid Start program, an initiative aimed at getting new veterans familiar with Veterans Affairs programs.
►RELATED: CORONAVIRUS FLORIDA: Okaloosa to discuss limited beach visits
Solid Start, the result of an executive order signed two years ago by President Donald Trump, is aimed in large part at ensuring that veterans maintain some sort of social contacts after leaving the military. At its core, the program is aimed at helping to ensure that new veterans don’t become disconnected or isolated, two circumstances that can potentially lead to veteran suicide, Lawrence noted.
►RELATED: Upside down American flag at Walton County business attracts public criticism
Under Solid Start, the VA reaches out to new veterans at about 90 days after they leave service. The new veteran can expect another call at about six months after leaving the service, and a third call about a year after entering civilian life, Lawrence said.
“We encourage everyone to take those phone calls when they come,” Lawrence told the people participating in the conference call.
The calls are designed to allow new veterans “to talk about whatever they want to talk about,” Lawrence said. Some of those calls end up focusing on mental health issues, according to Lawrence, but the majority of calls cover general questions about VA benefits.
During Friday’s conference call, Lawrence urged new veterans who have been out of the service for more than 90 days, but who haven’t gotten a Solid Start call, to call the VA on their own, toll-free at 1-800-827-1000, to ask to become part of the program.
At the same time, Lawrence provided the VA crisis line number, 1-800-273-8255, for veterans who might need more immediate help for serious issues.
Also on Friday, Lawrence talked about the Blue Water Navy Act, signed into law last summer by President Trump.
Broadly, the law covers benefits for Navy personnel who served anytime from 1962 to 1975 on ships operating within 12 miles of the Vietnamese shoreline during the Vietnam War, and who might have been exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange. Agent Orange was used to defoliate Vietnamese jungles during the war.
The Blue Water Navy Act covers a variety of medical conditions presumed to have some connection with Agent Orange, including some forms of leukemia and heart disease, prostate and respiratory cancers, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, among many other medical conditions.
“If you think you have these conditions, please, please, please apply for benefits,” Lawrence urged, suggesting that family members might want to assist veterans who might qualify for Blue Water Navy Act benefits to apply for those benefits.
And, Lawrence said, benefits within the Blue Water Navy Act are “not only for veterans; there are survivor benefits.”
During the conference call, Lawrence took a question from a Vietnam veteran who said he was told that his ship served too far out in the ocean during the Vietnam War for him to qualify for benefits.
Lawrence urged the man to get back in touch with Veterans Affairs, noting that even ships that served beyond 12 miles of the Vietnamese shoreline came into the port at Da Nang, meaning he could qualify for Blue Water Navy Act benefits.
“You and other veterans who were previously denied, please come back in and apply,” said Lawrence.
Also on Friday, Lawrence told conference call participants that the VA is making allowances for delays in filing documents for VA programs due to the spreading coronavirus.
“It is our intention to be as understanding as possible,” Lawrence said, explaining that veterans can call the VA at 1-800-827-1000 to get an automatic paperwork extension.
Alternatively, Lawrence said, veterans can attach a note to any late-filed paperwork explaining that the delay was due to coronavirus-related issues.
Lawrence said that, thus far, the VA is aware of 4,500 veterans who have tested positive for COVID-19, the serious respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus. Of those, he said, 3,500 are convalescing at home, while 1,000 are receiving hospital care.
And while the coronavirus has affected the way that the VA currently operates, Lawrence told the veterans and spouses on the conference call, “the VA healthcare system is open for business, and has the capacity to see you in the way you should be seen.”