De­layed Ben­e­fits Frus­trate Vet­er­ans

Hun­dreds of Thou­sands of Dis­abil­ity Claims Pend­ing at VA; Cur­rent Wars Likely to Strain Sys­tem Fur­ther

The Washington Post Sunday - - National News - By Christo­pher Lee

In his last years, World War II vet­eran Sey­mour D. Lewis would stand at the door of his home in Savannah, Ga., wait­ing for a let­ter that never ar­rived.

The fam­ily of the for­mer Army private, who lost the hear­ing in his right ear to a grenade ex­plo­sion in ba­sic train­ing in 1944, spent years wrestling with the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy for his dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits, at one point wait­ing more than a year just to be told to fill out more forms.

In 2001, the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs started send­ing Lewis a monthly check for $200, an amount he ap­pealed as too lit­tle and too late for the last­ing phys­i­cal sac­ri­fice he made for his coun­try, his fam­ily said. The ap­peal was still pend­ing when Lewis died last year at age 80.

“Ev­ery time I would call, they would send me a new form to fill out, with ex­actly the same in­for­ma­tion that they al­ready had,” said his son Frank A. Lewis, 61, a Navy vet­eran. “They run you around. They keep you dan­gling. . . . My fa­ther was el­derly. He would wait at the front door for the mail­man, wait­ing for some­thing from the VA. When he would get a let­ter, he would anx­iously open it, and when it said noth­ing, the de­pres­sion he would go into was un­real. I have a feel­ing they were just wait­ing for my fa­ther to drop dead so they wouldn’t have to pay any money. It’s been one big night­mare.”

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of vet­er­ans, many ap­proach­ing the win­ter of their lives, await VA dis­abil­ity claim de­ci­sions that will pro­vide or deny a key source of in­come. The monthly pay­ments, which range from $115 to $2,471 for in­di­vid­u­als, are avail­able to vet­er­ans of any age whose dis­abil­ity is “a re­sult of dis­ease or in­jury in­curred or ag­gra­vated dur­ing ac­tive mil­i­tary ser­vice,” ac­cord­ing to the Vet­er­ans Ben­e­fits Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Nearly 400,000 dis­abil­ity claims were pend­ing as of Fe­bru­ary, in­clud­ing 135,741 that ex­ceeded VA’s 160-day goal for pro­cess­ing them. The de­part­ment takes six months, on av­er­age, to process a claim, and the wait­ing time for ap­peals av­er­ages nearly two years.

This al­ready strained sys­tem may grow more over­bur­dened in years ahead as many of the troops de­ployed to Iraq and Afghanistan re­turn from those wars, ex­perts say. VA gives vet­er­ans from the cur­rent con­flicts top pri­or­ity in claims pro­cess­ing.

“The pro­jected num­ber of claims from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will rapidly turn the dis­abil­ity claims prob­lem into a cri­sis,” said Linda J. Bilmes, a Har­vard Univer­sity pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy who has stud­ied the claims process and met with VA Sec­re­tary Jim Ni­chol­son last month to dis­cuss ways to im­prove it. Bilmes, who noted that those of­fi­cially wounded in com­bat would be a small per­cent­age of new vet­er­ans ap­ply­ing for com­pen­sa­tion, es­ti­mated the long-term cost of pro­vid­ing them dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits at $70 bil­lion to $150 bil­lion.

Pres­i­dents, mem­bers of Congress and VA lead­ers have long promised to elim­i­nate the back­log, but still the vet­er­ans wait. Some de­pict a cul­tural prob­lem at VA — an at­ti­tude of in­dif­fer­ence or hos­til­ity among claims work­ers, a lack of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for vet­er­ans’ ser­vice re­flected in snubbed phone calls, slow an­swers and repet­i­tive pa­per­work. Some even be­lieve the de­lays are de­lib­er­ate, a way to keep costs down by de­ter­ring new claims or post­pon­ing awards un­til older vet­er­ans die.

“Once we can no longer be uti­lized as a sol­dier, we are of no use to them,” said Michael Fo­ley, 52, a for­mer Navy intelligence spe­cial­ist who served in Viet­nam and Cyprus dur­ing the 1970s. “There is an im­pres­sion of in­dif­fer­ence when you are deal­ing with the VA ben­e­fits peo­ple. They are go­ing to get a pay­check no mat­ter what.”

Fo­ley has trou­ble sleep­ing and en­dures night­mares from things he saw in the ser­vice. The Thomasville, N.C., res­i­dent said he is in ther­apy for post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, but VA de­nied the dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits claim that he filed more than 21⁄ years ago. He has ap-

2 pealed. Fo­ley also wants VA com­pen­sa­tion for a heart pro­ce­dure in 2004 that he says left him in the hospi­tal for 137 days with com­pli­ca­tions that in­cluded a par­a­lyzed right leg.

“A lot of peo­ple think all vet­er­ans want a hand­out. That’s not it,” said Fo­ley, who is un­em­ployed and lives on less than $1,100 a month, in­clud­ing a $240 VA pen­sion. “When I was in the Navy, they asked me to do things. At the time, it was ex­cit­ing. My grand­fa­ther warned me that this was go­ing to come back and bite me . . . one day. And it has. I lost my job, my house and ev­ery­thing else.”

Ron­ald R. Au­ment, VA deputy un­der­sec­re­tary for ben­e­fits, ac­knowl­edged that the de­part­ment needs to do bet­ter, but he re­jected the idea that the de­lays and de­nials are mo­ti­vated by money con­cerns.

“It’s not as though we’re work­ing on com­mis­sion here,” Au­ment said. “There is very much a shared pas­sion in this or­ga­ni­za­tion in try­ing to do right by vet­er­ans. . . . As far as whether or not we treat peo­ple rudely, I would cer­tainly hope that’s just an ex­cep­tion as op­posed to the rule.”

The de­part­ment fields 7 mil­lion phone calls about dis­abil­ity claims each year, he said. Forty-eight per­cent of the work­ers who han­dle claims are vet­er­ans. In part, the process is slow so that vet­er­ans have time to sub­mit doc­u­ments and other ev­i­dence bol­ster­ing their cases, Au­ment said.

The VA load is get­ting heav­ier. Dis­abil­ity-re­lated claims rose to 806,000 in 2006 — a 39 per­cent in­crease from the claims filed in 2000. The work­force han­dling them grew by 36 per­cent over the same pe­riod, to 7,858 em­ploy­ees. VA of­fi­cials ex­pect 800,000 new claims this year.

Vet­er­ans’ dis­abil­i­ties are also grow­ing more com­plex, with in­creas­ing claims for PTSD, di­a­betes (of­ten tied to her­bi­cide ex­po­sure in Viet­nam) and mul­ti­ple ail­ments. As the vet­eran pop­u­la­tion grows older, those who suf­fer from chronic, pro­gres­sive con­di­tions — heart, joint and hear­ing prob­lems, for ex­am­ple — file re­peat claims, which ac­count for more than half of all claims, VA says.

Earl Arm­strong, 87, a for­mer Army tech­ni­cian from Ravenna, Ohio, is a re­peat filer.

Arm­strong drove an ar­mored ve­hi­cle and won a Pur­ple Heart and a Bronze Star while serv­ing un­der Gen. Ge­orge Pat­ton in France and Ger­many in 1944. He suf­fers from PTSD and per­sis­tent ring­ing in his ears, the lat­ter from the ma­chine gun that was mounted a few feet from his head, he said. The prob­lems have wors­ened, and for three years Arm­strong and his wife have tried to per­suade VA to raise his dis­abil­ity rat­ing from 50 per­cent to 100 per­cent, which would more than triple the cou­ple’s $781 monthly com­pen­sa­tion to $2,610.

“I am sick of the VA and the way they’ve been treat­ing us,” Arm­strong said. “I can’t un­der­stand it. There’s too many [claims], I guess, and they don’t have enough peo­ple to han­dle them.”

VA handed out $34.5 bil­lion in dis­abil­ity pay­ments to more than 3.5 mil­lion vet­er­ans and their sur­vivors last year. Au­ment said VA has in­creased its claims work­force by more than 580 peo­ple in the past year and plans to hire more than 400 ad­di­tional staff by June. “The cor­ner­stone of our long-term strat­egy is to de­velop more pro­cess­ing ca­pac­ity,” he said.

It is too early to pre­dict whether there will be a “huge surge” of claims from Iraq and Afghanistan vet­er­ans, Au­ment said, and claims for se­vere dis­abil­i­ties such as lost limbs are those VA can process fastest. Still, some older vet­er­ans say their younger coun­ter­parts are in for a rude awak­en­ing when they ap­ply.

Army vet­eran Ray­mond L. Go­ings, 61, served as a mil­i­tary po­lice­man in Viet­nam from 1969 to 1971, an ex­pe­ri­ence that left the Las Ve­gas res­i­dent with PTSD, he said. He praised his VA psy­chi­a­trists, but not the re­gional of­fice that de­nied the dis­abil­ity claim he has pur­sued for three years.

“Ba­si­cally they said I was never be­ing shot at, that the things I told them I saw, I didn’t see,” said Go­ings, who has ap­pealed. “They wanted dates and times, even though I tried to ex­plain to them that there are a lot of things about com­bat that I can’t re­mem­ber.”

Jer­rel Cook of Jo­plin, Mo., an­other Army vet­eran, breathes with the help of an oxy­gen tank and suf­fers from asthma, chronic bron­chi­tis, hear­ing loss, hy­per­ten­sion and thy­roid prob­lems. Cook, 62, blames bi­o­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal test­ing in Alaska while he was sta­tioned there in the mid-1960s. VA has de­nied his five-year-old dis­abil­ity claim.

“They are play­ing a wait­ing game,” he said. “It’s eas­ier to stall out un­til the vet­eran dies rather than to pay his claim. . . . This is on­go­ing prac­tice with the VA, and it’s cer­tainly some­thing that needs to be cor­rected.”

PHO­TOS BY OS­CAR SOSA FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Frank A. Lewis says of his dad’s at­tempts to get dis­abil­ity from VA: “I have a feel­ing they were just wait­ing for my fa­ther to drop dead so they wouldn’t have to pay any money.”

Frank A. Lewis vis­its the Savannah, Ga., grave of his fa­ther, who tried for 57 years to get dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits.

Sey­mour D. Lewis, who died in 2006, lost the hear­ing in his right ear to a grenade ex­plo­sion in 1944.

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