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Vet claims bottlenecked

The wait time for U.S. combat veterans to get a claim processed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has jumped by more than 2,000 percent in the past four years.

Under the Obama Administration, the number of veterans waiting more than one year for a disability claim to be approved or denied rose from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December 2012. In large metropolitan areas the wait time is even longer. Some of the more than 24,000 pending claims in Los Angeles, Calif., are still without a decision after more than 600 days.

Those statistics were released in March by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which contends that the average time for an Iraqi or Afghanistan war veteran to get a first claim processed is now more than 315 days.

There are currently 903,296 claims pending in the VA system with 633,389 more than 125 days old, according to the federal agency.

With the current bottleneck in place, Wasco County Veterans Service Officer Russell Jones said, veterans need to make sure their claim is complete, with all supporting forms attached. He said filling out the paperwork right the first time — and not requiring officials from the VA to search out data — is the best way to speed up processing of a claim.

“The biggest key is documentation,” he said. “Over half the time spent by the VA to process a claim involves gathering evidence. If we can provide all of that with the initial claim, then we can help cut down the wait time and avoid the possibility of a denial. If that happens, then the wait time for the resolution to an appeal is at least three years.”

He said once a claim for some type of disability has been filed with the VA, there is nothing further his office can do to expedite the review process, although he does alert the agency about hardship created by the wait. To date in 2013, Jones has filed claims that have brought in more than $84,000 for veterans in the region and he expects $180,000-300,000 to be received just from one of the 71 claims that are currently pending. There are currently about 3,000 veterans in Wasco County and Jones also serves many Klickitat County veterans, as well as those from Sherman, Gilliam, Hood River and Wheeler counties.

“One of the worst parts of the job is explaining to a veteran or his widow that there is really no way to speed things up, especially if that individual is experiencing financial hardship or even homelessness,” he said.

The problem of delays is not a new one, with about 400,000 veterans waiting more than six months to receive word from the VA after the 2001 start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

VA statistics show that the situation improved by the time the U.S. initiated Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, with slightly more than 200,000 vets waiting less than 100 days for word on approval or denial of a claim. Between 2003 and 2007 — the year the troop surge in Iraq began — the number under the Bush Administration began to climb back up toward the 2001 rate.

From 2009 through the end of 2012, the numbers jumped dramatically, rising to more than 800,000 veterans waiting 240 days or longer to learn their claim status.

Despite the Obama Administration’s Joining Forces initiative to rally national support for troops who return from combat, the number of veterans waiting long periods of time for assistance is now hovering near the one million mark.

That situation has led to recent calls from veterans groups and U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, for the resignation of Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits. They contend the VA is required by law to do everything possible to assist those who have served and is failing in that mission.

“When you have a company, any company, that doesn’t perform, you fire the CEO,” said Shad Meshad, head of the National Veterans Foundation and a former combat medic in Vietnam, during a recent press conference.

“We tell veterans don’t shoot yourself, don’t shoot your wife, just stick with it and we’ll see what we can do while you wait two years for your benefits.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a March 24 speech that the backlog has been created by an outdated system of paper records. He said upgrades to the federal agency’s computer systems that will accommodate the digital filing of claims will speed up the review process.

Shinseki has set the goal to have an electronic filing system in all VA offices by the end of 2013 and every claim processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by late 2015.

Hickey recently submitted information to Congress showing that, with the war in Afghanistan now in its 12th year, claims submitted by Post 9/11 veterans have grown to more than four million. That is more than double the number of conditions claimed by veterans of the Vietnam era, who are also experiencing a number of illnesses presumed to be linked to Agent Orange exposure.

Vietnam veterans represent the largest group in the current claims gridlock at 37 percent, according to Hickey. She said the rules for connecting PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) to service have been loosened, paving the way for more claims, and nine diseases associated with service in the Gulf war have been added to the presumptive conditions that qualify for federal assistance.

Hickey said improved battlefield medicine also has meant that more young veterans are surviving combat duty but returning home with claims for very complex injuries.

Despite the fact that more than 940,000 veterans had been added to the compensation rolls — more than are on duty in the active-duty Army and Navy at the current time — Hickey said the VA has completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year for the past three fiscal years.

Her assertion has drawn fire from veterans’ groups who contend that number was reached by the VA processing the easiest claims and not those for more difficult mental and physical health problems.

Jones said the situation might be helped by the VA’s establishment of “centralized regional hubs” to process claims by type. For example, he said disability issues will be handled by an office in San Diego, Calif., where people with expertise in that particular field are on duty.

“The idea is to have specialists who know the issue really well,” he said.

Russell invites any veteran with questions about a potential claim to call his office, 201 Federal Street, at 541-506-2502 and schedule an appointment for a consultation. He can also be reached at russellj@co.wasco.or.us

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