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Crow Wing County Board: VSO plans service improvements for vets

Freeing up time to assist more veterans is the goal of a streamlining effort of the Crow Wing County Veterans Service Office discussed Tuesday. Bob Nelson, veterans service officer, and assistant VSO Lindsey Lamwers presented to the county board ...

Assistant veterans service officer Lindsey Lamwers (left) and veterans service officer Bob Nelson explain new processes they plan to implement to the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday. The change is an effort to streamline office operations. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch
Assistant veterans service officer Lindsey Lamwers (left) and veterans service officer Bob Nelson explain new processes they plan to implement to the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday. The change is an effort to streamline office operations. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

Freeing up time to assist more veterans is the goal of a streamlining effort of the Crow Wing County Veterans Service Office discussed Tuesday.

Bob Nelson, veterans service officer, and assistant VSO Lindsey Lamwers presented to the county board a plan for establishing set processes for assisting veterans in obtaining benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies. Lamwers told the board the office too often experiences chaos without such processes.

"The main thing that we've had problems with is we have a high number of veterans coming in, and anytime it could be they think it's a crisis (and) they want to get seen right now," Lamwers said. "It makes it get a little chaotic at times. ... We have too many vets walking in and they want us to do all their legwork and homework for them."

Lamwers said the new process would require veterans to supply discharge papers from the beginning, and then a 30-minute appointment would be scheduled. The face-to-face appointment would establish the veteran's needs, and then the veteran would be assigned the tasks necessary to acquire information needed to process the expected claims. This could include bank statements or medical history information, Lamwers said.

A 15-minute follow-up appointment, scheduled once a veteran has the necessary information, would be the point when the office submits information needed for a claim.

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"The main idea is for your standard vet to have about a 45-minute face-to-face overall, which will allow us to make sure we serve them the best we that we can, without taking up too much extra time that's not needed and could be served to a different vet," Lamwers said.

Lamwers said for veterans in crisis, both she and technical/administrative specialist Kim Jensen are trained in suicide prevention. The office also maintains connections with other outreach groups able to respond to mental health concerns.

"Therefore, the vet never falls between the cracks," Lamwers said.

County Administrator Tim Houle said it sounded like the goal was to improve the productivity of the appointments with veterans. Nelson said it was about increasing ownership of claims among the veterans.

"In the past, we may have done most of that work for them," Nelson said. "(We want to) try and give it back to them to say, 'This is your claim, not our claim. You need to take ownership in what it is you're requesting.'"

Houle asked what the office employees would do with the recovered time. Nelson said it would offer the opportunity to help more veterans.

Lamwers said it would allow the office to track claims more efficiently, including ensuring they are coded properly-a problem Lamwers said they've seen occur.

"This allows us time to go in and fix that for the vet, so they're not looking at a yearlong process," Lamwers said. "They're looking at a few months."

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"So your time is spent on the right things that the veteran can't access, and you're asking the veteran to help you with the documentation that only they have access to," Houle said.

Nelson said he wanted commissioners to be aware of the new process, which he intended to put into effect next month.

Chairman Doug Houge asked whether Nelson could supply a report in six months to demonstrate whether the new processes were effective. Nelson said he'd be interested to see the results.

Commissioner Paul Thiede complimented Nelson on the initiative.

"You and I have had our disagreements over the years and most of it centered around organization," Thiede said. "You turned your assistant VSO into helping you organize, and I compliment you for doing that. I don't think it would work quite as well without that cooperation between the two of you."

In September, Nelson faced a one-day suspension over missed deadlines, and his performance was previously discussed in 2015 when the county board was set to decide whether to reappoint him to his position. Nelson has said his position is different from other department heads because of his hands-on customer service duties. He lamented the workload in his office on numerous occasions before introducing the new processes Tuesday.

"I consider the input from the staff as being the key to make things work," Nelson said. "We have to try different things to make improvements to help serve veterans more efficiently and do the job. I have a lot of faith in Lindsey and Kim to help guide us through the best processes, so we're going to give this a go."

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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