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Utah VA Program Meant To Help Rural Vets Faces Elimination

Erik Neumann / KUER
Wesley and Debra Grossnickle at the Bear River Area Agency on Aging in Logan, Utah.

The Veteran’s Administration, or VA, is in charge of getting benefits like healthcare and disability compensation to Utah’s former service members. But for veterans from past wars, it can be hard to navigate the system. One local program is meant to help veterans but it may soon disappear.

Wesley Grossnickle was a helicopter door-gunner in Vietnam in 1970 and ’71.

"We was in Hueys, so we was in support. We were what’s called the 229th Assault," Grossnicle says. 

Today he lives in Cornish, Utah, a town of about 300. Grossnickle has hearing and vision problems. He also has heart trouble from exposure to Agent Orange and he is being evaluated for PTSD. There are lots of things the VA can do for Grossnickle. The problem is finding out about them.

"Cause you don’t know who to ask," Grossnicle says. "Who do you call? You call somebody at the Veteran’s Administration, they don’t know you, they’re not going to tell you nothing."

Right now there is a program to help veterans like Grossnicle get benefits. It’s called Cover to Cover. It enlists social workers in rural Utah to help vets navigate the VA if they don’t know how to use a computer or they get frustrated with the paperwork required to file a claim.

Deborah Crowther is one such social worker. On a recent afternoon she was calling the wife of an elderly veteran from her office in Logan, Utah.

"You have a 100 days of Medicare benefit," Crowther told the woman. 

Crowther is a veteran’s service officer with Cover to Cover. She works with vets living in Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties. 

"I met with a guy yesterday who, he got service connected for hearing loss. And he said ‘I got this letter. All I really want is hearing aids. What do I do now?’" She says. 

Crowther has lots of stories like this. Wesley Grossnickle was another veteran she helped. He heard about Cover to Cover last November when he was applying to a program that helps low-income vets pay for their heat in the winter. Since he served in Vietnam the VA has changed and Grossnickle says he didn’t know what he was eligible for.

"Without her I’d be lost. She can get me the paperwork or she can tell me what paperwork they have and I can go online and get it. But without that knowledge, I got no idea," he says. 

Cover to Cover started in 2013 as a three-year pilot program through the VA’s Office of Rural Health. By most accounts, it has been a success. Organizers say they have served about 3,500 vets in Utah. Most are over 60-years-old and often they’ve never gone to the VA before. The program has also been adopted in Nevada, Oregon, Colorado and Idaho.

Jennifer Morgan came up with the idea for Cover to Cover. She says that sometimes the different parts of the VA, which give different benefits, don’t always talk to each other.

Credit Erik Neumann
Jennifer Morgan is the program manager for Cover to Cover.

"It’s just, it’s hard. It’s hard for veterans to figure out VA. It’s hard for community agencies to figure out VA. Sometimes we have a training and we bring VA together, because we have someone from healthcare and benefits." Morgan says. 

Cover to Cover is different from other VA programs. It focuses on providing vets with information. If you’re a veteran, it won’t help you recover from a heart attack, but it can tell you how to find the cardiac program that will. Because of that, it’s been hard for the VA to measure Cover to Cover’s impact.

Tom Klobucar is the acting director of the VA’s Office of Rural Health.

"While it did actually make contact with a number of veterans, and we’ve seen their performance data, they couldn’t actually demonstrate that they’d had a positive healthcare impact for individual veterans," Klobucar says.   

At the end of this month, the VA is planning to cut the funding for Cover to Cover and its seven offices around the state. Klobucar says to justify continuing to fund it, they would need to show its making people healthier and saving money.

Jennifer Morgan, the program’s manager, says if Cover to Cover does go away, the social workers who run it won’t lose their jobs.

"As one of the directors said, is losing the funding, 'ultimately it doesn’t really hurt me. It doesn’t hurt my agency that much. It hurts the veteran,'" Morgan says. 

Credit Erik Neumann
Deborah Crowther is a veteran service officer with Cover to Cover.

Social workers like Deborah Crowther will have less time to focus on veterans. Recently she was helping a man connect with the VA healthcare system but he was homeless and camping out.

"The problem was he had a government phone and it has limited minutes and he was up in Logan Canyon. I have to go up and find these people, you know, find out where they are," Crowther says. 

She says if the program ends on September 30th, ensuring that people like Wesley Grossnickle get their benefits will be harder and they may give up.

"These people have walked me through the parts that I would have just said. ‘I’ve had enough.’"   

For veterans like him in rural parts of Utah, it could be a return to the past. 

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