Veterans Wait for Benefits as Claims Pile Up

The frustrating delays involved in collecting benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs are legendary. And despite recent efforts on the part of the VA to streamline their procedures, there has been little improvements in those delays.

In our practice we have found the same to be true of the Social Security Administration, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. So perhaps it’s simply a federal government issue, and not specific to the VA. Still, the frustration remains.

A very lengthy article in the New York Times recently detailed the problem. I encourage you to read the entire article. Here are excerpts:

These are the faces of what has become known as “the backlog”: the crushing inventory of claims for disability, pension and educational benefits that has overwhelmed the Department of Veterans Affairs. For hundreds of thousands of veterans, the result has been long waits for decisions, mishandled documents, confusing communications and infuriating mistakes in their claims.

Numbers tell the story. Last year, veterans filed more than 1.3 million claims, double the number in 2001. Despite having added nearly 4,000 new workers since 2008, the agency did not keep pace, completing less than 80 percent of its inventory.

This year, the agency has already completed more than one million claims for the third consecutive year. Yet it is still taking about eight months to process the average claim, two months longer than a decade ago. As of Monday, 890,000 pension and compensation claims were pending.

Skyrocketing costs have accompanied that flood of claims. By next year, the department’s major benefit programs — compensation for the disabled, pensions for the low-income and educational assistance — are projected to cost about $76 billion, triple the amount in 2001. By 2022, those costs are projected to rise nearly 70 percent to about $130 billion.

These are the compounding wages of war, and they are not just the result of recent conflicts. The department is administering pensions for World War II veterans while handling new claims from Vietnam veterans struggling with the multiplying ailments of age. Indeed, nearly a third of all pending new claims are from Vietnam-era veterans, roughly equal to the number from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

Thanks to superior battlefield medicine and armor, those Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have survived combat at a higher rate. As they return home with more wounds, and perhaps more savvy, the ones who file for disability compensation are claiming on average nearly 10 disorders or injuries each, compared with 6 for Vietnam veterans and fewer than 4 for World War II veterans. Their complex claims are often more time-consuming to process, adding to the backlog.

At the same time, a higher percentage — nearly half — of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are filing for disability compensation, partly because of the weak economy. That is double the rate for previous wars.

“We’re not gaining any ground here,” Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, acknowledged in an interview over the summer. “Am I impatient? Yes, but I’ve got a fix.”

That fix is the department’s “transformation plan,” which calls for a new training regimen that Mr. Shinseki says will improve speed and accuracy in processing claims; creation of special teams to handle complex claims; and new digital technology that will replace the current paper-choked system.

When all those pieces are in place by 2015, Mr. Shinseki says that every claim will be processed in fewer than 125 days, with almost no errors — a pledge that veterans’ advocates view skeptically.

The history of the backlog, which predates the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, suggests another source of the problem: a bureaucratic culture with conflicting missions.

On one hand, Department of Veterans Affairs employees are urged to be advocates for veterans. “I tell them: you’re going to take care of these young men and women for life,” Allison A. Hickey, a retired Air Force brigadier general who is under secretary for benefits, said in an interview.

Yet those workers are also required to be stewards of the public dime, called on to distinguish the truly needy from the less needy from the fraudulent.

That means they must evaluate veterans to determine whether their illnesses or injuries are real, and whether they are the result of military service, or something else. If those problems are deemed “service connected,” the workers must then quantify their severity and attach dollar values.

Medical questions without simple answers must be settled by harried bureaucrats and overworked doctors applying black-and-white rules to very gray ailments. Their decisions mean the difference between monthly checks of a few hundred dollars versus a few thousand.

When veterans are not happy with the results, as is often the case, they can appeal, or reapply, submitting new documents and diagnoses to bolster their claims — and adding years to the process.

Employees and veterans advocates repeatedly point to one reason: a lack of manpower. Though the Veterans Benefits Administration, the division that oversees entitlement programs, has grown significantly in the past decade, to 20,600 employees from 12,150, it still often assigns mandatory overtime to meet workload demands. And because the processing is so complicated, it can take two years before new hires are fully productive, the department says.

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