Benefits of staying with the federal government as a civilian

So it turns out that working for the federal government as a civilian is a much better experience than working for them as an active duty soldier. And there are some great benefits as a civilian federal employee if you served in the military. Here are the top three benefits that I found out about once I started my civilian federal career.

  • Your time in the military counts towards the amount of leave you will receive. So if you served 3 years in the military and then get a federal job as a civilian, you will immediately be in a higher leave category. You would get 6 hours of leave a pay period vs. the 4 hours per pay period a non-veteran newcomer to the federal government would receive. If you served in the military for 15 years and started a civilian federal career, you would receive 8 hours of leave per paycheck.
  •  Your military time counts towards your retirement if you do what is called a military buy -back. This is usually around 3-4% of what your total salary was while in the military. Once you do this buy-back, all your years of military service will count towards your retirement after you have completed 5 years of civilian federal service. Your federal retirement will be based on your top three years salary X your years of service (in the military and as a civilian), so it doesn’t matter that your salary was extremely low while in the military.
  • You will receive Veterans’ Preference when applying to a federal job as a civilian. Veterans’ preference can be pretty confusing, but this website explains it pretty well. As a job seeker, you don’t really get to see Veterans’ preference in action, so I asked my employer how it worked for me in the hiring process. My application met the requirements for the position and veterans’ preference made my application go to the top of the list. My employer was filling multiple jobs using the same posting in USAJobs. Since my application showed I was eligible for the position, veterans’ preference forced my employer to give me a job offer before non-veterans could be interviewed for a position. Since I finished graduate school, I have applied to about 60 jobs. Out of those 60, 5 were federal positions. I got interviews for all five jobs and received a job offer from 3 out of the 5. I didn’t get any interviews outside of the federal government. So in my case, veterans’ preference was a huge help. I will say my success is due partly to the fact that my profession (being a librarian) is not one often pursued by veterans. This meant my competition with other veterans for the same job was low. If you are trying to get a federal job as a police officer or firefighter, your competition with other veterans will be much higher.
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Applying for disability compensation

Applying for disability compensation from the VA can be a stressful and confusing experience. I don’t know any veterans that have gone through the application process that thought it was a pleasant experience. There are three ways you can apply for disability compensation.

When I applied for disability compensation, I used eBenefits. The electronic application was relatively easy to fill out. One benefit of applying through eBenefits is that you can easily track your application. The status of it doesn’t change that often, but at least you can tell what stage it is at.

When you apply for disability compensation, it is likely that you will have to go to the VA for a medical exam. My disability claim was for tinnitus, so they gave me an appointment with a VA audiologist. For the last few years, the VA has maintained a large backlog of unprocessed disability claims. This makes the claim process move slower. Recently the backlog has been reduced. When I applied, I waited about five months before I heard anything. After three months of waiting, the VA contacted me to schedule an appointment. The audiologist was backed up on appointments so I think I waited another three months before I could come in for my exam. If you aren’t a patient at the VA, you will still probably have to have your compensation and pension exam at the VA. If you do see a private doctor, make sure you get documentation from your doctor relating to your service-connected disability. You will want to submit that information at the time of your initial application.

My visit to the audiologist was relatively easy. I explained the problem I was having and told the audiologist how long it had been going on. She asked what my MOS was in the service. There was a one-page sheet of information I had to fill out that was basically trying to determine if I had any jobs after the service that subjected me to lots of noise exposure.

After your appointment, the doctor will fill out their opinion on if the disability is service-connected. This is where it is very important to have a MyHealtheVet account. Check out my post on getting a MyHealtheVet account. If you have a MyHealtheVet account, you will be able to read what the doctor wrote. This will give you a decent idea on how the rest of the process is going to go. The doctor’s note is a very important factor in your claim, but it isn’t the doctor who decides whether or not your claim is approved. You will still have to play the waiting game after your appointment is over. If you do get your disability claim approved, you will receive back pay to the day you first submitted your application. I think my application from start to finish took 11 months. I have heard other people say it took them 2 years. If you are denied and appeal the VA’s decision, that takes a lot longer.

There is something called the Fully Developed Claim process. This is the quickest way to apply for disability, but you need all of your supporting evidence when you initially apply. If the VA determines more documentation exists, they will just take your claim out of the Fully Developed Claims process and put it in the normal queue. This way there isn’t a risk for the veteran. This is all just what I have learned from the VA’s website. I didn’t apply using this but probably would have if I knew it existed.

I tried having a VA employee assist in my disability application but they really just told me what forms I would need. I probably would have gotten better luck using the DAV. Just remember this is an option if you find any stage of the process confusing. Also, remember that this is going to be a long process and you will go long periods of time where you will not hear anything. My recommendation is to have an eBenefits and MyHealtheVet account before you apply for disability. I would also request your military service records before you apply for disability. That way you will have access to the same information the VA employee that will be making the final decision has.

Check out this website to see the current disability compensation rates. It says 2014, but these are current. They just haven’t changed since 2014.

http://www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/resources_comp01.asp

 

 

eBenefits: an online portal for many veterans benefits

The eBenefits website is an online portal that allows you to apply for benefits like disability compensation, your GI Bill, and VA home loan eligibility. It also allows you to track your application throughout the approval process. Once your application is approved, you can track the payments you will receive and when they will be paid. I am sure for many years you will still be able to apply for these benefits using a paper application but applying electronically using eBenefits will speed up the processing time of your application. For the last few years, media outlets have reported on the large backlog of disability compensation applications the VA is working through. Knowing of this backlog, applying electronically is really in your favor. I have talked to veterans who told me how they applied for disability using a paper application, and that their application was lost somewhere in the system. The likelihood of this happening by applying electronically is greatly reduced since you are able to track your claim through the system.

Applying for disability is a such an important topic that I will dedicate a few posts specifically to that process. This post is just to let you know of the advantages of having an eBenefits account before you apply for disability.

Here is a list of the benefits you can apply for using eBenefits that I think are the most relevant to the typical veteran.

  • Apply for disability compensation
  • Apply for your pension if earned during your service
  • See if you are eligible for a VA home loan
  • Apply for the GI Bill
  • Apply for health care through the VA
  • Apply for Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI)
  • Apply for burial benefits for a deceased veteran

Once you apply for any of these benefits using the website, you can track your application. Some of them are immediate. I filled out the online form to see if I was eligible for a VA home loan and I received the acceptance in seconds.

Signing up for a basic eBenefits account is relatively easy to do online. Just go to the eBenefits homepage and click on the “Register” button. There are three register options you can pick from. If you aren’t a current federal employee, the third option will probably be what you want to select. There are 7 short pages of information you will need to go through before your account is set up. Successfully registering online will give you basic access to your account. There is a second level of eBenefits called a premium account. This is what you will want to take advantage of the benefits I list above. Getting the premium account is a little more labor intensive. Check out this link for a full description about obtaining a premium account.

The VA just released a video explaining how you can get signed up for eBenefits. Find it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szbYUKhbB7A

My HealtheVet: your VA electronic health record

If you are enrolled at the VA, you will have access to the website My HealtheVet. My HealtheVet is a great way to track your healthcare while a patient at the VA. Although any veteran that goes to the VA is eligible for a My HealtheVet account, you have to sign up for the program.

You can sign up for My HealtheVet electronically by using this link. Here are a few of the services that I use the most in My HealtheVet.

Pharmacy – This feature lets you look at your current VA prescriptions and medicine you have been subscribed in the past. If your doctor issued multiple refills of a prescribed medicine, you can order one of those refills electronically. The medicine will then be sent to your mailing address. This sure beats the old days when you would have to make a special trip to the VA just to get a prescription refilled.

Track health – This feature lets you read any lab tests or blood work that you did in the past. Test results are usually loaded into My HealtheVet a week after you did the blood work.

Secure messaging – This is basically an email service for every clinic you are a member of at the VA. Whenever you go to a new doctor in a specialty clinic, you will see that clinic added to the list of people you can send a message too. VA doctors are required to respond to your email within a few business days. I have asked questions in the past and didn’t receive a great answer, but I have never failed to receive a response. If you call your clinic, you often won’t be able to catch your doctor on the phone. Secure messaging is your best bet to save you another trip to the VA.

Blue button – This feature allows you to download all of your past VA healthcare. This will let you see all the notes the doctor or nurse put into the computer. This is important if you apply for disability compensation. Most disability compensation requests will require a doctor visit at the VA. By using the blue button after your visit, you will be able to see the doctor’s note and see if they believe your disability claim is service related. I don’t know how far back these records go. I first became a VA patient in 2002 and it seems I can see back that far. The My HealtheVet website says you can use the blue button to view military service information as well. I never saw that when I downloaded my personal health record (PHR) when using the blue button. Downloading your data is a really good idea if you see doctors outside the VA. That way they will know what type of treatment your VA doctors have provided.

VA appointment – This feature lets you look at the dates of upcoming and previous appointments.

I think My HealtheVet is a great service. My one complaint is that they give you access to your healthcare record without giving you any patient education needed to actually read the record. The doctor’s notes make sense and can be read, but the lab results and things like audiology tests can really only be read by a trained medical professional. They don’t provide these tests in a way a normal human being can understand.

Ever VA medical center should have a My HealtheVet coordinator. They are often positioned close to the entrance to the hospital. It is their job to encourage veterans to sign up for the program and are very helpful if you have any My HealtheVet questions.

 

 

Enrolling for health care at the VA

When I talk to veterans, I often hear incorrect assumptions about getting healthcare from the VA.

What I hear most frequently is, “Well I don’t have a service-connected disability so they wouldn’t take me as a patient”. This is not true. My father retired from the VA and he made sure I enrolled as soon as I got back from active duty. At that time, and for years after my initial enrollment, I did not have a service-connected disability. The VA provides full healthcare for anyone that meets the VA’s criteria for being a veteran listed on their website.

Does it cost anything to receive health care from the VA?

Well, it depends on how much money you make. When you enroll at the VA, they will have you take a MEANS test. This basically just asks how much money you made in the previous tax year. If you don’t make much money, then all of the VA services will be free. This was my experience while I was in college. Now that I have a good federal job, I pay 8 dollars per medical prescription. Seeing the doctor is still free. Any medicine that I am prescribed for a service-connected disability is also free.

Enrolling at the VA is pretty easy. Their enrollment web page shows all of your options. You can enroll online, by phone, or in person. Being enrolled at the VA counts as coverage under the Affordable Care Act and you will not have to pay a penalty if you use the VA as your sole healthcare provider. Even if you have private insurance through your employer, you can always keep the VA in mind for routine visits like an eye exam to cut down on co-pays.

Only a year ago, you had to have one appointment at the VA per year or they would drop you as a patient. You could always re-enroll, but it was an unnecessary hassle. In the last few months they started sending me emails announcing that when you enroll now, you are a patient for life. This is a recent program, so if you used to go the VA but haven’t in a while, you will probably still need to enroll again. I am sure they will still have you fill out a MEANS test each year, but at least they won’t drop you from the system if you don’t have an appointment annually.

I use the VA as my sole healthcare provider. If you are a veteran, I am sure you have heard about problems at the VA. And they certainly do have problems throughout the system, but it is a good option for those without healthcare plans at their work, or if your healthcare plan at work is too expensive.

 

 

How to request your military service records

I got out of the Army in 2002, but just recently requested my military service records. The main reason I waited so long is that I didn’t know how to submit a request. Having a copy of your service records can be beneficial if you are going to file a disability claim with the VA. The VA use your service records as part of their decision-making process for disability claims.

What you get back in your service records request may be different than what I received depending on how your unit kept their records. I received a lot of medical documents and all of my orders (Airborne school, new post assignment, etc.)

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hold  most service records. Their website is pretty good and lets you know which agency has your records if they aren’t at NARA. When I requested my records from NARA, I never received them and they never contacted me to tell me why. Here is why NARA didn’t have them. When you put in a disability claim at the VA, the VA tells NARA to send your service records to the VA. So if you have ever put in a claim at the VA, the VA will be the only agency that has your service records. I had to call them to request that they send me a copy.

So here is the cool thing about requesting your service records from NARA. They send you all of your medals from your DD-214. You will get the ribbon and the medal for most. It takes a few months for the ribbons to get to you but was a pleasant surprise. You will also get any badges you earned like Airborne/Air Assault, etc.

You can fax your request to NARA but I would recommend sending the request using their online submission system. Good luck!

A how-to guide on successfully accessing resources for veterans

Hello, all. My name is Alvin Stockdale and I am an OEF Army veteran. Over the years, I have found that I wasn’t always aware of resources available to veterans. I often heard about programs from other veterans, since it seems that many resources aren’t advertised. While I was in graduate school, I was able to collaborate with another veteran to build a resource guide for veterans. While working on that site I came to the realization that just giving someone a link to a resource may not be all that helpful. While you sometimes know about a resource, that doesn’t mean you know how to apply for it. I decided I needed to create a new site where I could provide an in-depth explanation of what my experience was while accessing resources for veterans.

I have worked for the VA as an undergraduate student and currently work for the federal government as a civilian. I am also a librarian, which means my main skill is knowing how to find information. I hope someone finds this site helpful and please let me know if you have a question or want to suggest a topic.