Having trouble with a federal agency? Inland congressional offices may be able to help
It took months for Debra Cummings’ disability benefits to kick in.
But when the check arrived, it wasn’t for the full amount. So the 58-year-old Redlands resident made several phone calls to the Social Security Administration. She wasn’t getting anywhere, until an employee threw her a lifeline.
“They said you need to speak to your local congressman,” said Cummings, a retired teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District. “I made the call, wrote a letter and within a week, seriously, within a week they turned it around and got my back pay and full benefits.”
Representative Norma Torres, of the 35th congressional district, and her staff meet with Raul Arteaga, of Chino, right, to talk about Arteaga’s concerns as well as how the office has helped him, during a meeting at Torres’ office in Ontario on Thursday, August 1, 2019. Torres’ office has helped its constituents with problems such as sorting out issues with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, social security payments, immigration issues and more. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Cummings is one of many residents who have turned to their local congressional offices for help navigating federal bureaucracies to get their benefits. And, as in Cummings’ case, taking the congressional route may not be the first solution to come to mind.
While plenty of attention is paid to Inland Empire lawmakers’ efforts in Washington D.C., back home in their district offices staff is helping constituents resolve issues with federal agencies, including Social Security, Medicare, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to name a few.
“Not a lot of folks know our office is here or that they can reach out,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, who represents Cummings in the 31st Congressional District.
“It’s our job to be out in the community to tell people what we can do and how we can help. That’s why we’re here.”
In 2018, Aguilar’s office assisted 1,200 constituents. In addition to the more common work of helping constituents get federal benefits, staff helps with immigration matters as well, such as travel visas, spousal visas and checking in on relatives who may be housed at the ICE Detention Center in Adelanto, Aguilar said.
Of course, they also help constituents request White House tours and arrange tours of the Capitol building while visiting Washington D.C.
But probably the largest number of constituents who reach out are veterans who have hit a roadblock with the VA, from getting an appointment to obtaining their benefits and back pay.
And struggles with the VA are not exclusive to veterans living in Aguilar’s district.
Bob Nieves, of Murrieta, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam, already had spent seven years getting the VA to recognize his Agent Orange-caused health issues and months getting a specialized wheelchair. When his doctor recommended he get an electric scooter to help him get around, it should have been easy. It wasn’t.
After Nieves’ request was denied by the VA, he and his wife, Marjorie, called Rep. Ken Calvert’s office. Even with congressional case workers involved, and the Nieves’ persistence, it took four months to get Nieves his scooter.
“A lot of veterans that contact our office, they get discouraged because of the wait times,” said Shawna Rimke, a casework manager with Calvert’s office. “It’s important to note that Mr. and Mrs. Nieves stayed on top of it.”
What’s worse, is when veterans give up fighting through the bureaucracy, said Jolyn Murphy, Calvert’s district director.
“How many people give up and don’t know to come here?” Murphy said. “It’s terrible. They served our country. They earned these benefits.”
While getting a congressional representative in your corner helps influence the process, it may not work all of the time. They cannot make judgments or determinations, but they can help ensure the agencies are following the law.
Congressional offices also can only serve constituents in their own districts, and must give staff permission to act on their behalf. It also helps to stay responsive to staff during the process.
Raul Arteaga, a Chino resident and U.S. Army veteran, reached out to Rep. Norma Torres’ office after years of trying to obtain a Veterans ID card. Sure enough, they helped him get one.
“It’s amazing,” said Arteaga, of Chino. “I’ve been trying for years and within a week or two weeks they solved it.”
Arteaga’s situation inspired the office to start holding monthly workshops to help veterans obtain their ID cards, which are needed to get discounts at restaurants and other businesses.
“The reason why I get on the plane and go to Washington is because of people like that,” Torres said. “That’s ridiculous that they can’t even access the VA to the tune of just getting an ID.”
Other veterans face more complex hurdles that can take months to resolve, Torres said, recalling the case of a female veteran from Pomona who had been denied her benefits multiple times.
It took Mario Ramos, a case worker, months of reading boxes of files before he found the one document that was key to unlocking her disability pay. She ended up getting her full benefits and nearly $80,000 in back pay.
“Some VA cases take a lot of time,” Torres said. “A lot of it deals with trying to find their paperwork, especially someone who has served many years ago. Those files are prior to electronic files. When we order documents it takes them at a minimum three months.”
Other than VA challenges, staff in Calvert’s office have seen many trends over the years.
They worked with the U.S. Postal Service to repair and replace cluster-style mailboxes damaged during a rash of mail theft, get homeowners in touch with their mortgage lenders during the Great Recession and obtain passports for constituents traveling to Mexico or Canada after a change in federal law.
“We have a staff here that has a lot of experience, cumulatively well over 40 years, so we’ve been able to provide services to get through these bureaucratic mazes,” Calvert said. “Federal agencies sometimes can be very difficult to maneuver, so that’s what our job is.”
Helping constituents in the district yields more immediate gratification. In contrast, partisan bickering tends to bog down the legislative process, Calvert said.
“Here it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or Democrat,” Calvert said. “If you can resolve a problem for someone, that makes the people here in the office feel good that they’ve done something positive for someone.”