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Hundreds of thousands of Michiganians who qualify for veteran benefits aren't using them, and many vets don't know they're eligible.

As a result, Michigan ranks among the bottom five states for federal spending per veteran. Veterans' benefits can include health care, monthly disability checks, life insurance, home loans and education through the GI bill. Benefits at the state and local levels include vocational training and the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund.

Only 22 percent of Michigan's estimated 660,800 veterans used their health benefits from the U.S. Veterans Administration in 2013 — the most recent year for which data is available. Roughly 13 percent of Michigan veterans received disability checks, according to federal data.

Officials are trying to reverse the trend by raising awareness of how and where veterans and their families can access the benefits they earned. Advocates have seen progress, they say, but funding, misinformation and reticence by veterans can be a challenge.

"I never really took the time to look into it because I was told you had to be a dismembered person in order to get these benefits," said Thomas Kline, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran in Wayland, who recently began receiving compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Michigan has more veterans from the Vietnam War than any other era, and those demographics help explain why the state historically had such low VA enrollment, said Suzanne Thelen, director of veteran engagement for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.

Like Kline, many vets returned from overseas and got pensions and insurance through jobs in the automotive or other industries. They didn't sign up for government health or education benefits because they didn't need them. Others spurned the agency after a bad experience.

"Some of us don't want to talk about what our claims would be, because it brings back up a lot of things that are kind of hidden in your mind," Kline said.

But some vets who previously were deemed ineligible now qualify under new policies, Thelen said.

"We encourage them to do an eligibility check. Anything that's connected to your service — most of those benefits never expire," she said.

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Centralized outreach

Michigan didn't coordinate veterans services through the state until recently. Five years ago, it ranked last among the states in terms of how much the VA spent on benefits per veteran — less than $3,000.

Gov. Rick Snyder called the cellar ranking "unacceptable" and created the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, which turned 2 years old March 20.

The MVAA has since set up a 24-hour hotline, (800) MICH-VET, in partnership with Michigan's 211 network and used the website michiganveterans.com to aggregate information about everything from emergency housing resources to "veteran-friendly" colleges in Michigan.

The agency also created regional "community action teams" to identify gaps in services for veterans, eliminate duplicate efforts and streamline communications among organizations serving vets.

"What this does in my mind is take the burden off of the veteran for knowing the right question to ask and knowing whom to ask that question," said Jeff Barnes, director of the state's veterans agency. "It's a good place where states can play a role."

Two years into the effort, the Great Lakes State has moved ahead of New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Indiana in per-veteran spending, according to National Center on Veteran Analysis and Statistics data. Total benefits spending by the VA in Michigan increased to $5,000 per veteran in 2013, which still trailed the national average of about $6,150.

"What we're focusing on is more how can we improve our standing among states that we're the most similar to, like Iowa, Indiana and others, that don't have military installations and who are in the industrial Rust Belt," Thelen said.

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Quality of claims

Vets often have difficulty navigating the process on their own because of the complexity of eligibility requirements. Certified counselors and veterans service officers often help vets get more compensation more quickly.

The VA has noticed the change. Prior to 2013, an estimated 93 percent of disability claims submitted by Michigan vets were incomplete, requiring additional paperwork before they could be processed, officials say.

The figure had fallen to 59 percent last fall, said Rodney Cline, a data analyst and spokesman for the Detroit Regional Office of Veterans Benefit Administration, which processes 2,300 claims on average a month. "Bringing the state on board has really helped," Cline said.

Additional VA staff and electronic claims processing also has reduced the average time for processing a Michigan claim from more than 10 months in 2012 to about six months, as of February, Cline said.

Veterans benefits lawyer Robert P. Walsh says a culture of claim denials at the Detroit Regional Office has contributed to the historically low per-veteran spending in Michigan.

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The VA recently denied a claim by one of his clients for Type 2 diabetes, although the agency itself says the condition in Vietnam vets stems from their exposure to Agent Orange, said Walsh of Battle Creek.

"The Detroit office has simply denied their way to a clean desk and a bonus check," he said.

About 6,190 disability claim appeals from Michigan are pending, according to VA data. Advocates can assist with appeals when vets such as Thomas R. English feel the VA wrongfully denied a claim.

English, 52, served 17 months in the U.S. Army in 1981-82, including a seven-month stint in Panama, he said. The VA denied his disability claim, saying he didn't meet the minimum 24-month duty requirement, despite an agency exception for early discharge for service-connected disabilities.

"A lot of times the veterans say, 'Forget it.' But you have to stay with it and appeal," said Chris Mallory, an AmeriCorps veteran resource navigator at Emmanuel House, which runs a transitional program for vets on Detroit's west side.

"If you served, you earned those benefits, and I don't want to see them going without it."

Not all vets have local access to someone like Mallory. Several rural counties lack a veterans counselor to provide accurate information about federal, state and local benefits, said Carrie Roy, vice president of the Michigan Association of County Veterans Counselors. Even counties with veterans offices face funding shortages and understaffing, she said.

"We're unique in the fact that this year we have an outreach budget," said Roy, director of the Kent County Department of Veterans Affairs. "This is the first year we've had the time and budget to do it."

A new initiative by U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, is trying to connect veterans with benefits across his largely rural, 30-county district, which includes the Upper Peninsula.

More than 200 turned out last month for a clinic in Cheboygan, bringing together VA reps and veterans service officers to assist vets in applying for benefits. About 75 vets opened new cases with the VA, and more fairs are planned, including one in Marquette on Tuesday.

"I believe that we owe every veteran a debt that can never be repaid," said Benishek, a surgeon who worked at the Iron Mountain VA Medical Center and chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee's health panel.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

AGENT ORANGE TOWN HALL

What: Town hall meeting hosted by Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 528

When: May 9

Where: Northville High School auditorium, 45700 6 Mile Road, Northville

Details: Register at www.vva528.org or call (734) 421-1805, option 2

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