Veterans Services office drawing complaints

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 7, 2012

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — The Rowan County manager says he’s asking for an evaluation of the Veterans Services Office after hearing about complaints from local veterans.
On Feb. 21, Gary Page requested a program audit by the N.C. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Page said Monday he had not received any recent complaints from veterans who had dealt with the office. But five were sent to him through Rodney Cress, a local veterans’ advocate, since January 2011.
The complaints criticized Elaine Howle, the office’s only employee. Page said the issue may not be with Howle herself, and the county may need to hire an additional employee.
“I think it would be beneficial for my evaluation of the VSO program, and in my review of Ms. Howle’s ability to perform her duties,” Page wrote in the request.
A few weeks later, another complaint came in.
Jon Morris said he called the Veterans Services Office on March 14, got no answer and left a message. Over four days, Morris said, he called back and left seven more messages.
Howle returned his calls six days after he first contacted her.
“After your eight calls, you don’t ever need to call me but once. I will always call you back,” Howle said in the telephone message. “I just have to wait until your turn comes up in line. You’ll never get through directly to me because I’m a one-woman operation.”
Jon’s brother, Spencer Alderman Jeff Morris, sent an email to Page on March 20 about his brother’s experience.
“I would hope that ‘never’ answering the telephone, and waiting six days for ‘your turn to come up in line’ for a call back are not part of the gold standard to which our veterans can hope for,” he wrote.
Jon Morris said Wednesday that he simply wanted to ask about educational benefits for his family.
“She needs to show the veterans a little more dignity and respect,” he said.
In an interview at her office Thursday, Howle said she left the message simply to reassure Morris and let him know what to expect.
She said it took her a while to reach the district veterans service office. She later left him a second message telling him who he could call for an answer to his question.
Howle’s office phone stayed silent during the interview, but the message light began to blink.
“I turned off the ringing,” she explained. “For probably the first six months, I kept having to excuse myself (during appointments).”
Howle said it works well for her to check her messages periodically, write down the callers’ information and return their calls in order.
On Monday, Page said he has spoken to Howle about the most recent complaint. He said he also called Morris to apologize — not for anything she did, but for the fact that he had to wait so long for a response.
Page said Morris’ experience likely has more to do with Howle’s caseload than her job performance.
In a July 2009 audit report, which Page requested to address earlier complaints, a VSO District Service Officer studied 18 random files at the office and found no errors.
The audit report said the problem “has not been with the quality of work, but with the number of clients a one-person office can adequately assist.”
“Until Rowan County decides to provide additional personnel in the veterans’ services office, there are going to be frustrated veterans,” the report said.
Senior Services Director Clyde Fahnestock disagreed in a July 2009 email to Page, saying Howle filed claims promptly, scheduled appointments quickly and did not keep veterans waiting long.
“I cannot justify the need for additional VSO staff positions, based upon the present level of contacts from veterans visiting our department,” Fahnestock wrote.
Until his retirement in 2010, Fahnestock was the VSO supervisor. Howle now reports directly to Page.
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Two complaints made through Cress came from Ricky Hess, of Salisbury, and a person representing Ken Rifenbery, of Spencer.
Hess and Rifenbery both say Howle incorrectly filed claims saying they have ischemic heart disease, which is a service-connected disability for Vietnam veterans.
When Rifenbery had a question about a different issue, he said, he left eight or nine messages before hearing back from Howle.
“She said if there’s anything I need, call her,” Rifenbery said. “On the third day, she called back and told me I needed to get ahold of somebody else.”
Howle said Thursday that she fills out forms based strictly on what veterans or their caretakers tell her.
Howle referenced Hess’ and Rifenbery’s files during the interview, saying she was told they both had heart conditions. Veterans are given medical exams before receiving benefits, she said.
“I’m supposed to advise them to make sure they get everything they are legally entitled to,” Howle said.
Rifenbery also said Howle incorrectly wrote that he got assistance from Medicaid in his pension claim from last June.
But according to Howle, it was the state office, not her, who determined that Rifenbery received Medicaid.
Hess and another veteran also say Howle talked more about her personal life than their claims.
“I was feeling sick, and I just wanted to get out of there,” he said. “She started talking to me about how she wanted to go dancing.”
One woman, who wrote an email to Cress in 2009, said Howle fell asleep in front of her while redoing a mistyped form.
Howle said Thursday she doesn’t remember that meeting or what happened, but she can get drowsy while visitors sort through their paperwork.
“Haven’t you talked to somebody when you’re tired and just fell asleep for a few seconds?” Howle said.
She said she sometimes makes personal conversation with veterans and their loved ones to help them smile and laugh during a difficult time.
Howle spread out a couple of dozen “thank you” cards on her desk Thursday — all, she said, from people she’s helped working in the veterans services office.
“I do everything I can for every veteran I can,” she said. “I cannot believe that any veterans services officer takes better care of people than I take care of mine.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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