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Veterans frustrated by VA disability claims backlog

Alex Branch
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Infantryman Josh Odom was seven months into his first tour in Iraq when someone lobbed a grenade over the gate at the combat outpost he guarded.

It exploded six feet from the Rockwall native, driving three chunks of shrapnel deep into his right shoulder. One pierced his lung.

Odom wound up at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he spent four months in rehab before completing his military service in May 2010.

Still suffering neck and shoulder pain, he filed a disability claim at a Veterans Affairs Department office in Dallas.

He expected the claim to take a while, he said, but not the nearly 18 months he waited for a partial decision, then eight more for a final ruling.

While he waited, lingering pain combined with frequent consultations with doctors for surgeries made it difficult to work.

"It seemed like a really long time," said Odom, 26, who now lives in Arlington. "This is help that can definitely make your life easier."

Delays in the processing of disability claims are a familiar problem at the VA, one that federal officials have long vowed to solve.

But in fiscal 2012, the average time to complete a VA disability compensation or pension claim climbed to 262 days, up from 188 the previous year, according to a report by McClatchy Newspapers.

The longest average wait -- 418 days -- was in the Waco Regional Office, McClatchy reported. That office handles claims filed in 164 counties, including those in North Texas.

"It has always been frustrating for the claimant, and the frustration has definitely increased," said Brian Walker, a Fort Worth attorney accredited by the VA to help veterans pursue benefits. "It has really kind of bottlenecked the last five or six years."

Since 2008, claims have risen 50 percent, an unprecedented increase, officials say.

VA officials attribute the backlog, defined as claims in the system for more than 125 days, in part to higher demand by veterans returning from 10 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with severe and complex injuries.

'It is unacceptable'

In the Waco office, one of only two sites in Texas where claims decisions are made, the number of pending claims reached its height in July, at 51,875.

Houston is the other Texas office. More than 50 regional sites nationwide make claims decisions.

A new electronic benefits management system, which will replace the paper system, will speed claims processing, said John Limpose, who has directed the Waco office since April.

The new system is part of the transformation of the Veterans Benefits Administration.

The Waco office had handled thousands of claims related to Agent Orange exposure and Gulf War illness, he said.

While the 2010 decision by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to recognize the conditions was the right thing to do, the claims were time-consuming and complex, some more than 40 years old, Limpose said.

Those claims were completed in August, he said.

"We firmly believe that veterans should not have to wait as long they have been for benefits that they are entitled to," Limpose said. "It is unacceptable, and our staff of 800 is working feverishly to improve on this."

Jim Richman, director of claims representation and counseling for the Texas Veterans Commission, said frustration over the waits is a common theme. Some waiting veterans served four or five tours and returned with injuries ranging from gunshot wounds to chronic disease.

"Is it daunting for a veteran who was just discharged -- who is trying to take care of a family, go to school or get a job -- to have to sit and wait a year and a half to two years?" Richman said. "Hell yes it is."

Odom, who is studying social work at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he has met veterans who waited longer than he has for a claim decision, as well as those who received answers sooner.

He said part of his claim was deferred for eight months after the first ruling from the VA because more evidence was required.

A 'perfect storm'

The problem is not with VA employees, Richman said. The agency is caught in a "perfect storm" of claims from veterans of recent wars and those from aging Vietnam and Korea veterans whose disabilities are worsening, Richman said.

"Most VA employees are hardworking, dedicated, very well-intentioned people," Richman said. "But it's this cumbersome process that gets in the way."

The VA's stated goal is to eliminate the claims backlog and complete all claims within 125 days, with a 98 percent accuracy rate, by the end of 2015.

Officials say more than 40 initiatives are under way at regional offices to better train employees and streamline the process.

"Basically, we are trying to turn a big ship," said Beth McCoy, a VA central area director.

"I think we are on track."

Waco's 12-month accuracy average as of October was 82.8 percent.

The national average was 86.4 percent.

Accurate initial claims decisions ensure that those entitled to benefits get their cash in a timely manner, and they help prevent lengthy appeals, according to the Government Accountability Office, which is the audit arm of Congress.

This summer, the Texas Veterans Commission was authorized to create "strike teams" of counselors to speed claims processing.

Counselors help veterans fill out forms and guide them through the process.

Recently, the commission hosted a Beating the VA Backlog event in San Antonio.

Counselors helped more than 400 veterans with claims.

A similar event is scheduled for next month in Arlington.

And just before Christmas, the Veterans Affairs Department announced that it will no longer require veterans to submit an annual form confirming their eligibility for benefits.

Workers who spent time processing the forms will now focus on the backlog.

Michael Walker, Odom's counselor, said he noticed improvement in processing times this fall.

They aren't all taking 16 to 18 months, he said.

"Some are taking a year; some are taking less," Walker said. "So these wait times aren't written in stone."

To reach Alex Branch, send email to abranch@star-telegram.com; Twitter: @albranch1

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