The Veterans Administration Paper Chase

A VA claims centerBeing a veteran who interacts with the Veterans Administration could be hazardous to your health. During the current administration, the backlog of veteran’s claims has swelled In 2011 by 155 percent.

During the previous administration operations at the VA became a political football. The media delighted in criticizing the VA during the Bush Administration, especially reporting on conditions at Walter Reed Hospital. The Democrats saw this as a political opportunity to garner more veteran’s votes.

It embarrassed Bush. It provided a means of appealing for the votes of both veterans and current members of the military, normally sources of support for Republicans. Finally, it purported to convert veterans into another victim group loved by the Democrats.

The VA paid $44.3 billion in disability benefits and $5.5 billion to survivors of veterans with a service-connected disability, according to its annual benefits report for fiscal 2012. A veteran who is rated 10 percent disabled receives a standard $129 per month.

Recently, some mainstream media outlets are beginning to spotlight problems that veterans face with the VA Paper Chase. Even though there is a paper blockade stopping veterans from receiving assistance on their just claims, VA administrators shared $5.5 million in bonus money in 2011.

VA administrators are experts at manipulating their own system in order to earn that bonus money. According to The Washington Post, the more complex claims were often set aside by workers so they could keep their jobs, meet performance standards or, in some cases, collect extra pay, said VA claims processors and union representatives.

“At the beginning of the month . . . I’d try to work my really easy stuff so I could get my numbers up,” said Renee Cotter, a union steward for the Reno, Nev., local of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

Beth McCoy, the assistant deputy undersecretary for field operations for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), said bonuses for claims processors were justified because, even though the number of backlogged claims was rising, workers were processing more claims than ever.

Despite these statements to the contrary, documents show that a board of appeals found in 2012 that almost three out of four appealed claims were wrong or based on incomplete information. Approximately 14,000 veterans had appeals pending for more than two years as of November 2012.

Meanwhile, the Obama administrations has touted their progress in reducing the enormous backlog of disability claims. However, The commander of the nation’s largest veterans organization warned lawmakers that the progress in reducing the size of the disability claims backlog is threatened by the number of mistakes the VA makes on those claims.

There is a rarely mentioned second backlog ominously growing. More than a quarter-million veterans are appealing disability-claim decisions they say are wrong, and in some cases they can wait four years or more for a ruling, figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs show.

Since Barack Obama took office there has been a 50% increase in veterans who are appealing decisions on disability claims. The number is now 256,061 and increasing. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which makes the final administrative decisions on appeals, expects its number of pending cases to double over the next four years.

The appeals backlog has grown partly because VA has directed resources away from appeals and toward the high-profile disability backlog, according to interviews with VA workers and veterans’ advocates. The VA Secretary Erik Shinseki admits that appeals take a back seat to disability claims.

A veteran who takes an appeal through all available administrative steps faces an average wait of 1,598 days, according to VA figures for 2012. If the veteran pursues the case outside VA to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, it takes an additional 321 days on average, according to court documents.

The board was able on average to make a decision in 251 days in 2012. But nearly half the time, cases are sent back for further consideration to the regional office, where it can take well over a year — on average, 445 days — to process.

As American veterans age, especially the World War II and Korean War vets, the need for speed becomes more acute. For World War II veteran Joseph Groner, 89, the help may not come soon enough. About 20 years ago, x-ray technician Groner developed lesions and lymphoma was eventually diagnosed.

He filed a claim with VA in 2007. When VA denied his claim, Groner appealed in 2008. On Aug. 8, after five years, the Board of Veteran Appeals overturned the denial, based on a medical expert’s opinion that Groner had been exposed to radiation levels sufficient to trigger the development of lymphoma.

But it will probably take VA months more to process the case and make any payments. “If they don’t come through pretty soon, I don’t think I’ll be here,” Groner said.