Out of over 211,000 Puerto Ricans that have served in various war scenarios, only 93,240 have claimed the benefits they are entitled to as veterans.
The rest of them—some of whom are deceased—have not claimed the compensation they are entitled to before the Veteran Affairs (VA) Regional Benefit Office, according to Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González, who yesterday paid an initial visit to the federal facility, located in Guaynabo. The Commissioner intends to launch an educational campaign geared towards this population.
“We want to reach them, so that they understand they have rights, they have benefits. That’s why this campaign is so important,” González remarked, adding that she hopes to launch the initiative in June.
The monthly compensations for Puerto Rico add up to around $46 million—almost $1,699 per veteran.
“Something that has concerned us is that every veteran should know they are not alone, that they will receive the services, and that there is a united front to help them,” González insisted. Over the past few days, González has met with the directors of several federal offices in the Island, looking to promote the services they provide.
Abner Concepción, assistant director of the San Juan Regional Benefit Office, stated that they don’t have an analysis explaining the reasons why some veterans haven’t requested the available assistance services. However, in his experience, one of the main reasons is the lack of access.
There is only one Regional Benefit Office in Puerto Rico, even though there is staff deployed in other facilities, such as the Veterans Hospital in Río Piedras, and the many clinics in municipalities such as Guayama, Ponce, Mayagüez, and Arecibo.
“It seems curious to me that when visitors arrive, they usually think that the Island is very small, and that coming here or getting to the Hospital must be very easy. But when they see Puerto Rico’s topography, they understand that it’s more complicated than that,” Concepción explained.
The physical and emotional disabilities that result from having fought in a war also affect the veterans’ ability to access services. And there is also the lack of information, and the fact that, in the past, soldiers were used to serving in the military and then resuming their civilian life.
“Now we have to plan an outreach in order to talk with them and explain their benefits. In the past, our agency didn’t provide as much information as it does now. We are working hard so that the information reaches the people and empowers the veterans and their families,” the federal official added.
For these purposes, they are celebrating clinics twice a year in Fort Buchanan, Guaynabo.
“I was very pleased to see that the Veteran Hospital has a modern structure, instead of the stagnant building I had envisioned,” said the Resident Commissioner after touring the facilities.
Advances Have Been Made
A few years ago, there were over 3,000 delayed cases in the San Juan Regional Benefit Office. According to Concepción, that figure has decreased to around 400 cases nowadays.
The public official said this progress was thanks to the employees’ commitment, as well as the digitization of medical records, which has streamlined the process to handle cases.
Concepción explained that a case is considered delayed when it has remained over 125 days without processing. “Right now, in the Regional Office, we are completing cases in an average of 156 days. We have around 800 assigned cases, and 400 have been pending for 125 days or more,” he stated.
González added that “what is happening here is happening nationwide, and it’s what has elicited the reforms.”
Another reason for Gonzalez’s visit to the federal facility is that a nationwide reform for the VA has been prioritized in the agenda for both Congress and President Trump.
The Resident Commissioner, who is part of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs, assured that she feels “it is important to work” with Puerto Rico’s Veteran Affairs Office.
González highlighted several bills approved in the US House of Representatives, such as the one that vests the VA administrator with the authority to relieve employees who have committed fraud from their duties.
She also mentioned the measure that provides the agency’s director with additional tools to hire doctors. “Puerto Rico is one of the jurisdictions where we have a Veterans Hospital, but we don’t have all the medical specialists,” she pointed out.
The third approved legislation would seek to extend the access to benefits like educational scholarships, among others.