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Veteran rep fears mishandling of disability claims

Wasco County Veteran Service Officer Russell Jones is concerned that federal officials may be denying old disability claims, only to restart them again so it appears that a backlog of cases has been dealt with.

He is asking U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., to look into the matter based on a claim denial that crossed his desk this week. The veteran from Klickitat County filed a claim in May 2011 for more benefits related to hearing loss and tinnitus from his service in the Korean War.

Jones said the claim was denied on the grounds that a physical examination had not taken place, which should have been ordered by someone in the U.S. Veterans Administration prior to a decision being made.

Instead, the agency sent the veteran a letter two days after the denial that offered to start a new claim and arrange for the required physical examination. Jones said it appeared the agency was trying to stop the clock on the old claim and buy more time to address the issue.

“Because the VA promised several months ago to speed up the processing of any claim filed before July 1, 2011, it appears that this might be an attempt to say this one was dealt with,” said Jones. “We don’t know if this is an isolated incident or a systemic problem so we are asking for Congressional help.”

Several months ago, the Department of Veteran Affairs promised to speed up the processing of any claim filed before July 1, 2011. That vow followed criticism from the Center for Investigative Reporting and other organizations that the wait time for a veteran to get a claim processed had 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.

In recent weeks, the VA has missed the internal deadlines set for reducing the massive backlog of claims. In April, the agency reported that it had fallen nearly 17,000 claims short of its production goal for that month.

The CIR has accused the VA of backing away from the repeated pledge to process all claims within four months by 2015. Internal documents obtained by reporters show that the agency processed 260,000 fewer claims than it thought it would during the past year and a half. That means it fell 130,000 short of its goal in the 2012 fiscal year and another 130,000 short between October and March.

In a weekly performance report posted online, the VA now excludes a host of benefits from its processing promise, including pensions sought by survivors, compensation claims from children of Vietnam veterans with birth defects caused by the herbicide Agent Orange and pensions sought by survivors.

According to CIR, the VA said in an email statement that its promise to eliminate the claims backlog was never meant to cover those types of benefits. The agency has projected that the number of veterans and family members waiting for disability benefits would increase to 895,000 by the end of September, with 555,000 claims pending more than four months.

Jones said it is important to learn if the VA is dealing with old cases by making them new again.

“If this is a systemic problem and we can stop it before it gets worse, so much the better,” he said.

At the local level, Jones might be able to help move claims along due to his new accreditation to access the federal VA system. He said that certification, earned by attending training sessions and working with veterans for almost 18 months, should enable him to see if claims he has filed are held up by something that can be addressed with additional data.

“Until now, if I needed to get an update on the status of a claim, I would have to call Portland or write a letter requesting that information,” he said. “Now I’ll be able to go online and will have direct access to the system.”

Since January 2013, Jones and Patrick Wilbern, intake coordinator, have dealt with 250 visits each month from veterans inquiring about filing a claim or checking on the status of one that has been submitted. Another 225 incoming calls have been answered to provide information or set up appointments.

The 20 claims that have come back with approval of a service-related disability have brought $357,582 in retroactive checks to area veterans or spouses. Another $17,740 in checks that will be sent monthly for the life of the veteran or spouse have been issued.

“Taking care of our veterans should be a top priority for a grateful nation and we are doing everything in this office that we can on behalf of those who have served,” said Jones, who spent almost 12 years in the Navy.

On Friday morning, Tom Towslee, a spokesperson for Wyden’s office, said, “We are aware of the situation and we are looking into it.”

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