This is my Purim article. I’m stating this at the outset because it is about the Veterans’ Administration, and it would be funny – hilarious, actually – if it weren’t true. But as a writer once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.”
The following story makes no sense, but it is true. It is about trying to obtain VA Survivor Benefits for my mom, who qualified due to the many years of my father’s service in the Army.
Story #1: “Catch 22 Comes to Life”
To qualify for Survivor Benefits, we had to call the VA’s Newark Regional Benefit Office. But when we called – no matter how many times we called – we heard, “Our representatives are busy assisting other clients right now. Please call back after hours to schedule a call-back time.”
Yes, you read that correctly: the only way to schedule a time to speak with someone from the VA was to call when they aren’t there. Like Catch-22’s Major Major Major Major, you cannot make an appointment to see him when he is in. One might ask the VA, “If you’re too busy to answer the phone, why not let people make an appointment for a call-back when they call?” But no – appointments can only be made when the VA representatives aren’t there.
Don’t believe me? Call 800-827-1000, and keep pressing “other.” Then stand in awe of how our government treats our veterans.
Story #2: “Rabbi Weber Is Rendered Speechless”
I know, what are the chances? But it happened. Here’s how:
We finally succeeded in getting a call-back, and we jumped through the hoops to get the benefits for my mom. BUT, the VA wasn’t done…
By this point in my mom’s life, she was no longer able to pay her own bills or handle any financial decisions. Or really any decisions, including deciding whether to call me by my name, my father’s name, or our childhood dog’s name. It’s never easy when a child has to become the parent’s parent, but I saw this as an opportunity to pay back a little of what my mom did for me when I couldn’t care for myself. So I asked the VA how to arrange to become the “Fiduciary Representative” for my mother. The Nice Woman on the phone sent me the forms to complete, then explained that there would be a 60-day waiting period before they could approve my application, to give time for anyone to object to my role. So far, so good.
And then she said this:
“Of course, you can have your mother sign a letter waiving the 60-day waiting period, and we can process the application right away.”
I paused. For a long time. Then I asked, “But I’m asking to be her representative because my mom has dementia. What’s the point of her signature on a letter if she doesn’t have the mental capacity to know what she’s doing?”
“That doesn’t matter to the VA. As long as she signs a request to waive the waiting period, we can go ahead.”
“Ummm, do you understand what I’m saying? If I put a letter in front of my mother which says that she is a Flying Pink Elephant, and I ask her to sign it, she will. Because she has dementia. Do you still need her signature for this?”
I did not know what to say. I was silent until the Nice Woman asked if I was still there. I thanked her for her help, I wrote out the letter, and I had my mom sign it. The checks started arriving, made out to me as her Fiduciary Representative. And all I could think was how easy it would have been for me to cheat my mother out of her VA subsidy if I had wanted to do that. (I’ve put a copy of the letter on my blog on the TRT web site; I managed to be 95% serious in writing it...)
Yes, I am grateful to our government for offering help to an elderly woman who had lived longer than she ever expected, and who ran out of savings a year before she died. I am happy that they took note of my father’s service and helped the woman he loved to his dying day. But after hearing all the horror stories about the bureaucratic run-around which our veterans get, these two, small examples leave me with no doubt about the accuracy of the other complaints. I am astonished that with all the pious words our elected officials heap on our men and women in uniform, they cannot or will not do what is necessary to treat our veterans with respect once their time in the service is over.
This would be funnier if it wasn’t true. But if it wasn’t true, it would be too far-fetched to write.
Rabbi Don Weber