The call I was waiting for from the VA. Really!

It finally happened!  The VA called and scheduled my final disability evaluation appointment.  Hooray!

For those who are wondering why this is a big deal, here is a quick backstory.  My veteran’s disability claim has been turgidly moving through the system for nearly a year and a half, and during that time I also entered the VA medical system.  As I learned, the VA has two distinct and different sides when it comes to disability claims and healthcare, and they do not talk.

This became a problem for me because I did not understand that important fact.  My disability claim was partially settled six months ago, and with the notification letter came the promise of a call to finish the process.  Soon after, I was contacted by the VA on numerous occasions to schedule and attend various appointments at the local clinic.  Foolishly, I thought that the clinic and the disability claim evaluation were one and the same.  As I said earlier, they aren’t.

As it happens all of the calls from the VA clinic were for the medical side and were unrelated to the disability claims side, and none of the appointments had anything do to with my claim.  Good news for my medical coverage, but still a lot of frustration on my disability claim.

So, months of frustration, I called the VA.  After a few weeks of phone tag, my case was reviewed and I was again promised that I would be receiving a call to schedule my follow up appointment.  I was not optimistic.

My pessimism was abated when they called.  Actually, they contacted me by mail. I received a letter that explained that I needed to be seen by the VA’s contract provider for a few things that were not completely documented by my initial visit, and with the letter came a questionnaire regarding the issues in question.  I filled out the questionnaire, and within a day or two I received a call from the provider’s office to schedule an appointment.

Yesterday I went to the contract provider that takes care of the claims side of the VA house.  It was the same provider that I had seen a year earlier, and to their credit they were very efficient and polite.  I was in and out of their office in less than 45 minutes, which was a pleasant surprise as I had anticipated spending the afternoon in the waiting room.  With that appointment I had, in theory, finished up my claims process.  I hope it is done.  According to the VA representative that I had spoken with earlier the only items remaining in my case were the evaluation from the contract provider and a few administrative corrections in my file.

The evaluation is done.  Now I just have to wait for the administrators to correct my file and then my disability claim should be completed.

I’ve heard that story before.  We’ll see…and I’ll keep you posted!

__________

Lessons learned:

– The Medical side of the VA is completely separate from the Disability claims side of the VA.  In my case, the clue to the difference was that all of the medical issues were addressed by my local clinic while all of my disability evaluations were performed by a contracted provider.

– Be proactive.  Call the VA and determine your status.  I think it helped, as my case was languishing for months until I made some inquiries.

– As always, be patient!

Advertisements

Learning a new skill: Salary and benefits negotiation part 1

In the military one learns a good many things:  How to stand at attention and march smartly about.  How to carry and shoot a rifle, and how to live out of a backpack for weeks on end.  How to fix a tank or fly a jet.  Lots and lots of things.

One thing that you don’t learn, however, is something that everybody else in the business world learns with their first job: how to negotiate.

Negotiation is a very important part the employment process.  When a candidate is offered a position with a company he or she begins the discussion of compensation with the hiring manager, where things like compensation, benefits, hours, vacation time, career progression, retirement plans, insurance, and countless other things that are part and parcel of employment.  In the corporate world all of these items are negotiable, and both job providers and job seekers know it.

In the military the situation could not be more different.  When a young man or woman joins the military they are provided a comprehensive pay and benefits package, but it is one that is set by law and regulation.  There is no negotiation for a better salary or more flexible hours — in fact, there is no negotiation at all.  The pay, allowances, and benefits for military folks are no secret, either.  The pay scale, which is based on rank and time in service, is readily available on the internet as are all of the other  benefits, special pay conditions (such as jump and dive pay), and housing stipends.  When you join the military you get what you get, just like everybody else in uniform.

As a result of the defined pay and benefits in the military those in uniform never engage in the process of employment negotiation, and that can place them at a disadvantage when they hang up their uniforms and enter the civilian world where everything is negotiable.

Everything from the salary you will earn to the amount of vacation you can take to where you can park your car is on the table.  It is up to you, the job seeker, to get the best offer that you can, and if you don’t know to engage in the back and forth of negotiation then you risk leaving valuable things on the table.  There is one guarantee in negotiation: you will never get things that you don’t ask for.

Fortunately, you can arm yourself for such a negotiation by doing a little research and preparing for it.

The research bit can make an enormous difference in the negotiation process because it can provide you with valuable information about the company and what you can and can not ask for.  You can surf the internet (at sites like www.glassdoor.com or www.payscale.com) and ask your friends and contacts (especially those in the industry you are entering or work at the company) about what the average salary for your desired position is as well as the benefits package that the firm offers.

As the job seeker you have leverage in the negotiation up until the point that you accept the job offer and the terms that it contains.  Once you say “yes” the negotiation is over, and you are highly unlikely to be able to change anything.  At that point anything that was left on the table will vanish like a thief in the night.

So what are the types of things that you can ask for?  Here is a quick list of twenty things that many companies will entertain and which may or may not be similar to military benefits:

1.  Performance bonuses.  Can you make more money if your performance merits it?

2.  Flexible hours.  Maybe a four day week with longer workdays?

3.  Work location.  Work from home?

4.  Overtime pay.  How much will you be compensated for working extra hours?

5.  Retirement plans.  What kind do they offer?  How much will the company match in a 401K?

6.  Vacation time.  You received 30 days a year in the military, and the base in the civilian world is two weeks, unless you negotiate for more.

7.  Travel expenses.  Can you get  company car?  Mileage compensation or a gas station credit card?

8.  Non-monetary compensation.  Can you earn stock options or fully valued shares of the company’s stock?

9.  Career flexibility.  Can you create a path that starts in one area of the company and then move to another?

10.  Time off.  How about personal days?  Sick days?

11.  Health care.  Is health insurance included?  What are the deductibles?  Is there an on-site clinic?

12.  Insurance.  You had SGLI in the military at a steeply discounted rate.  Does your employer offer life insurance?

13.  Meals.  Is there a company cafeteria?  Are meals subsidized?

14.  Child care.  Can you bring your child to work?  How about a nursing room for those who wish to nurse their infants?

15.  Tech equipment.  How about a company phone or laptop?

16.  Discounts.  If the company produces goods, can you purchase them at a discount?  Is there a company store?

17.  Memberships.  Will the company provide memberships to a health club or gym?

18.  Travel.  Will you be expected to travel in coach, business class, or even better when you travel?  How about upgrades?

19.  Education.  Will the company pay for you to pursue an MBA or other educational opportunitity?

20.  Relocation expenses.  Will the firm pay for you to move your family to the city where you will work?

These are only the tip of the pay and benefits iceberg.  If you don’t do your homework and come to the bargaining table knowing what you can and should ask for you will get less than you could have.

In my next post we will prepare for the negotiation by rehearsing and doing a little self examination to make sure we do the best job possible at the bargaining table.

__________

Lessons learned:

– Military benefits are set.  Corporate benefits are not.  To get the best salary and benefits possible you are going to have to negotiate for them.

– Not all companies offer all benefits.  You need to do some research to see what the company offers, and then be prepared to ask for them.

– Salary is usually the biggest aspect of the negotiation, but it is not the only element.  Unlike the military, many corporate benefit packages are tailored to the individual employee.

– Use your network of contacts and the internet to research what will likely be on the table during the negotiation.  Don’t look foolish by asking for something the company does not offer, and don’t forget to ask for something that they do.

Figuring out what to do next

After you leave the service you need to find something to do with the rest of your life.  Unless, of course, you are independently wealthy or have figured out how to live the life of Reilly on your pension.

Since most of us are in neither of those predicaments we have to decide what should come next in our lives.  There are many opportunities that veterans can pursue, such as an education, finding a trade, getting a job, or even moving back home with the parents.  Each opportunity has its allure, but other than moving back into your old room at your folk’s house they all involve a commitment to change your direction in life.

For some, going to college makes sense.  For others, pursuing a trade is a better idea.  For those with the pressing need for employment skipping an education and getting into the labor market is the right answer.

This post is for those veterans — the ones who need to get into the workforce as quickly as possible.

One of the most difficult parts of transition is finding a way to successfully bring your military skills into a civilian work environment.  One way that you can leverage your experience as a leader, manager, and technical expert is to determine what careers are best suited for your talents.  Another way to leverage them is to pursue practical training that will result in a certificate (as opposed to a college degree) that will prove your ability to perform in a business environment.

There are a lot of certificates out there, and a lot of agencies that offer them.  Some are tremendous opportunities and some are complete garbage, so you need to be very careful when you follow the certification path.  A friend of mine who is familiar with the certification process introduced me to UCLA’s Extension Certificate Program.

The program is an adult professional education opportunity for those people who are looking for specific training and education in a defined sector such as human resources, project management, global sustainability, nonprofit management, or one of the many others that they offer.

While this is not particularly groundbreaking (because lots of universities have adult professional education programs) I found one aspect of their model to be tremendously useful.  They offer an analysis tool on their website which can help you determine if a certificate program is for you, and in addition to help p0int you in the direction of the certificate best suited to your experience, learning style, and goals.

I surfed to their website (www.empowered.com) and took the assessment.  It took a few minutes, but once I was finished I learned that I was suited for project management.  It described what a project manager does and it all sounded interesting and right up my alley.  Although I am not personally looking for a PM certificate, the assessment was thorough and identified my strengths and talents.  Pretty neat, really.

So I recommend that you go to http://www.empowered.com and check it out.  There is no obligation, and you just may find something that interests you.  I learned a little about myself, and you will too — especially if you are looking to make yourself marketable in the corporate sector, where certificates are recognized and serve as a differentiator between job candidates.

Check it out- I did!

A call from the VA. Finally!

Well, the VA finally called me back.  For those readers who may be unfamiliar with my ongoing saga with the Veterans Administration, here is a quick recap:

My disability claim is well into its second year.  Some six months ago I was informed that my claim was partially completed, with about half of the identified conditions being adjudicated.  I would be “contacted” by the VA to schedule appointments which would take care of the unresolved issues.

So I waited for the call.  For five months I waited, and finally decided to take the initiative to call them instead of spending another day being deafened by the sound of no telephones ringing.  After a week of failed attempts, I finally reached a real live VA representative!  Together, we reviewed my case and initiated an inquiry that required the team that was actually working on my case to contact me and explain its status.  In ten working days.  Or less.

They never called.  So, at day twelve, I called them.

I eventually ended up speaking with another VA representative who (again) reviewed my case.  She determined (and was quite annoyed to report) that the team who was evaluating my case had indeed seen the inquiry, but had simply marked it closed and not bothered to contact me.

Nice.

She apologized and placed a note in the electronic file to her boss and the team that was supposed to contact me.  Whether or not they would actually call me back she could not say.  To her credit, she was very professional and really helpful.

Well, two weeks later the VA called back.

I don’t know if the gentleman who initiated the call was on my team or not, but he did explain the status of my claim.  It turns out that one of the remaining conditions requires an actual physical re-examination, but the others required administrative corrections (which, in his words, consist of checking different boxes on the processing forms).  Don’t worry, he said, I would be contacted soon (!) by the VA to schedule the appointment.

I won’t hold my breath.

He followed by instructing me to call two weeks after the appointment as a follow up.  Apparently, since my case is in the review stage it will not lose its place in line and go back to the beginning because all that is required is for the printouts from the examination and the corrected process forms to be placed in the file.  If I call, he said, it will make sure that the file keeps moving forward.

So now I am in week two of waiting for the call to schedule my appointment.  I’ll keep you posted…

__________

Lessons learned:

– Be proactive.  My experience shows that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and particularly if the VA promises something that they do not deliver.  Make sure to record names, dates, and times of your calls and reengage with the administration immediately after they fail to achieve a timeline milestone.

– Be patient.  It is not going to be a rapidly resolving process.  If you get angry, all you will do is slow it down.  I know it is incredibly frustrating at times, but the people on the other end of the phone are overwhelmed by a byzantine bureaucracy.  Don’t vent your frustrations at the messenger because you may find your file at the bottom of the pile.

 

An opportunity for Combat Veterans

I have written about the opportunity that Veterans 360 presents for transitioning veterans.  For those who may not have read my prior posts on what they do, here is a refresher:

It is very challenging to make a quick and successful transition from military to civilian life.  There are many obstacles that you encounter along the way, many new things to learn, and a unique set of experiences that you never want to forget.  It can really be daunting and confusing at times for any veteran to make the change back to civvie street.

It is particularly daunting and confusing for those veterans who are struggling with the effects of Post Traumatic and Combat Operational Stress as they leave the military.  Combat veterans, in particular, have a more difficult time making the transition.  I have spoken with many who are making the shift, and one theme comes through in every conversation: “What am I gonna do now?”

Being a transitioning Marine intimately familiar with the realities of PTSD myself I can fully relate.  It is tough to make the change from one way of life to another, and it is much more difficult for those with stress injuries as they wrestle the demons within while trying to adapt to a new life without.

There is an organization that I am affiliated with that aims to help combat veterans successfully navigate the challenges transition.  Veterans 360, a nonprofit organization headquartered in San Diego, is kicking off what I believe is a great program to help combat vets make a successful transition.

Here is their mission:

Veterans 360 has a clearly defined mission: to provide recently separated combat veterans with a carefully developed and managed program of support that will help them develop the professional and interpersonal skills needed to succeed in civilian life. Our goal is that through engagement, education, employment and healing, our student-veterans will utilize what they have learned, manage the resources that are available to them and become equipped for an exceedingly successful transition into civilian life.

They help vets by bringing them into an cohesive and immersive environment for the crucial first two months after leaving the service.  Veterans 360 brings a dozen or so combat vets together, forming a “squad” that will go through an integrated and comprehensive transition program together.  They will work live together, work together, and heal together in an environment that centers around engagement with the local community, education focused on basic skills and vocational training, employment facilitation that will help them find meaningful work, and healing to help deal with PTS.

All of this is accomplished through individual and corporate donations, and not one thin dime of the veteran’s post-service VA or other benefits will be touched.  This is a critical point, as many unseemly organizations and “educational” facilities have sprung up with the cloaked goal to separate the veterans from their money.  Veterans 360 is proudly not one of them.

Veterans 360 is about to kick off their inaugural squad engagement on April 1st of this year.  They are looking for candidates to participate in the program.  The details of the initial effort are listed in their recruiting poster:

Veterans 360 Recruiting Poster

If you are a combat veteran in the San Diego area who is looking for something innovative to help with your transition, check it out!

The sound of no phones ringing as my VA saga continues

In my most recent post I lamented about the languishing status of my service connected disability claim.  It had been partially settled, but half of the conditions under review still required action and that action was very long in coming.  It is month seven and counting since I was informed that “I would be contacted” by a VA representative to continue the work on my claim.

At month five or so I called to see what was up.  After many failed attempts, I got up extra early and called when the call center opened, and after being on hold for a half hour I was able to speak to a representative.  Long story short, he initiated an official inquiry which included the promise that I would receive a telephone call from the regional office that was working my claim.  In ten working days or less.

Well, ten days came and went, so this morning I again got up extra early (well, not that extra early because I get up before 0500 anyhow) and I called the VA.  After navigating the automated menus I was informed that I would be on hold for 22 minutes, so I waited.  45 minutes later a voice broke the elevator-esque hold music monotony and asked how she could help.

I explained my dilemma, and she pulled my information up on her computer.  I heard the clattering of her typing on her keyboard along with a sigh.

“They did not call you?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“They marked it closed, but there are no notes that show a call was conducted…”

Great.

It turns out that my Official Inquiry had been marked closed with no action taken.  No call.  No notes.  No action on my claim.

I was a bit annoyed, and she was a bit perplexed.  I got the feeling that I was not the first person that she had spoken to with this problem.  To her credit, she calmly explained the next steps as she typed away.  She notified her local supervisor as well as the supervisor and the team that was supposed to contact me about the problem, and apologized for the whole incident.  She went so far as to say that whoever closed my inquiry had actually lied about it and not done their job.  She said that someone may call me to update me on the status of my claim, but she also wisely did not promise that anyone would actually pick up the phone.  Neato.

As for my claim, she further explained that the crux of the problem was that while my issues had been partially resolved (with a completed disability rating for half of my identified conditions) the remaining issues would be addressed in the future.  How far in the future she could not say.  Eight months was the average for the initial claim (which was close to my timeline), but there was no expected timeline for the rest of the issues.  It could be a day, a week, a month, a year, or more.  Neato again!

So there you have it.  My first call resulted in a promise of a call back that never came.  My second call resulted in a complaint that nobody called, and I don’t know if anyone ever will.  Time will pass, I suppose, and maybe my phone will ring.

I won’t hold my breath.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  Stay on top of the process!  If you are promised a phone call, follow up if you do not get it.

2.  Call early in the day and you will get through.  Eventually.   My experience is that your wait time is twice the amount of time announced, so get a cup of coffee or two and read the paper because it is going to take a while.

3.  Don’t get angry.  The person on the other end of the phone is a person too, and they had nothing to do with your particular issue.  If you make them angry they will not be helpful.  Remember the golden rule!  Be nice and help them help you.