UPDATE: Hagan says top VA official to address claims backlog - WSFX - FOX Wilmington, NC

UPDATE: Hagan says top VA official to address claims backlog

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Jon Evans sat down with local Veterans to hear their complaints and concerns regarding the backlog of benefits claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs Jon Evans sat down with local Veterans to hear their complaints and concerns regarding the backlog of benefits claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs

WASHINGTON, DC (WECT) – According to Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is sending one of the agency's top officials to Winston-Salem, to address the backlog of disability claims filed by America's Veterans.

Hagan says VA Secretary Eric Shinseki plans to dispatch Retired Brig. Gen. Allison A. Hickey, the VA's Under Secretary for Benefits, to the Winston-Salem facility.  "She is in charge of benefits for the Veterans Administration," Hagan said. "After she has taken stock of what is going on in Winston-Salem, I want her to give me a detailed plan on how she is going to correct the situation. The fact that we're going in the wrong direction is unacceptable, and I want to see what is going to happen as soon as possible, and how it is going to be corrected."

Hagan did not specify when Hickey would arrive in Winston-Salem, or how long it would be until she received a report on the plans to correct the situation.

(The following is from Jon Evans' Special Report on the claims backlog from May, 14, 2013.)

Leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC have admitted they have a problem. A backlog of benefits claims has reached historic proportions.

According to the VA's own Office of Media Relations, as of April 27 the department had 882,023 pending disability claims. Nearly 70% of those claims, 610,150 to be exact, have been pending longer than 125 days and are considered to be part of VA's "backlog". 

At the VA's regional office in Winston-Salem, where claims sent by our local veterans are handled, 50,556 claims were pending as of April 27, with 34,985 at least 125 days old.

Internal documents uncovered by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the average time it takes for the VA to complete a benefits claim is 288 days. According to the CIR, " internal data  America's major population centers wait up to twice as long – 642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles and 542 days in Chicago."

The VA has set a goal to reduce that time to 125 days by the year 2015.

Click here to view the "Strategic Plan to Eliminate the Compensation Claims Backlog" released by the department in January, 2013. Despite the claim, local veterans are not inclined to believe it, based on the problems many of them have had and continue to have with filed claims.

"This process has become so convoluted and so mishandled," said Ron Holtberg, an Executive Committeeman and Service Officer with the Disabled American Veterans Office in Wilmington, and an Atomic Veteran.

"I think the VA is a super bureaucracy," said Jim Greene, a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran.

"The majority of the people you talk to on the phone, the majority of the people you go to see, don't care," said Frank, a retired U.S. Army veteran who fought in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "That's what I've seen in the short time I've been in the system."

"I just found out that because I am a recipient of the Purple Heart, I don't have to pay for any drugs I buy," said Greene. "But, I've been paying a co-payment for years."

"Since 1961 they've kept denying me for this lung from working in these conditions and paint," said Art Sanders, who retired from a career in the U.S. Navy that included fighting in both the Korean War and Vietnam War.

Art's early years in the Navy were spent scraping paint off ships like destroyers, and he did it for about ten years. He has paperwork showing a condition called Sarcoidosis developed and was diagnosed in 1960. He has the condition on his lung and on his skin. For more than 50 years, the VA has denied Art's disability claims for the condition.

"When we sent (the claim) in for my lung condition, they said ‘no, you only have it on your skin' they missed the lung completely!" Art said during a roundtable discussion at the DAV office in Wilmington. "Ron (Holtberg) called up to Winston-Salem and said ‘how can you miss this, it's on his initial paperwork?' Their new people missed it!"

Holtberg, Patrick O'Reilly and Artie Peterson continue to serve their country, by serving fellow veterans as DAV Service Officers. They help veterans file claims with the VA, trying to navigate the complicated system they blast as broken.

"The system is not working, but nobody has sat down to try to improve it," said O'Reilly, a veteran of the Vietnam War as a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. "By adding more people to the system, it's not going to help."

In the "Strategic Plan to Eliminate the Compensation Claims Backlog," the VA cited several reasons contributing to the current backlog of disability claims.

They include:

Increased Access

1.  Increased use of technology and social media by Veterans, families, and survivors to self-inform about available benefits and resources

2.  Improved access to benefits through the joint VA and DoD Pre-Discharge programs

3. Additional presumptive decisions resulting in more claims for exposure-related disabilities

4. Extensive and successful use of VA outreach programs encouraging more Veterans to submit claims

Increased Demand

1. Ten years of war (Iraq, Afghanistan) with increased survival rates, resulting in more claims

2. Post-conflict downsizing of the military

3. Impact of a difficult economy

4. Growth in the complexity of claims decisions as of result of the increase in the average number of medical conditions for which each claimant files

In the same document, the VA cites new employees and updated training as one initiative to meet its 2015 goal: The 1,900 new employees who have received Challenge Training decide 150% more claims per day than predecessor cohorts. (Challenge training is focused on overall skills and readiness of the workforce, according to the document).

Since the report's release in January, the VA has reduced the number of pending claims slightly, from 896,999 claims on February 2, 2013 to 882,023 claims on April 29, 2013, a drop of .016% according to the agency's own documentation, which you can see by clicking here.

Holtberg accentuated his claim regarding the difficulties in dealing with the system.  "This is what a new person up there has to learn," he said while tossing a manual on the table. It is a copy of the VA's "Federal Veterans Laws, Rules and Regulations" manual, several hundred pages thick, which governs decisions made on benefits claims.

Holtberg and the others will tell you of the endless paperwork involved in the process. Re-submitting claims, requests for second or third copies, and with each submission comes an increased wait time for a decision. If your claim is denied by the VA, you can file an appeal, which Holtberg says "can take anywhere between 18 months and five years to complete."

Frank is in the middle of the appeals process right now. He filed the appeal after being denied a claim for permanent nerve damage.

"Ron opened up my file again, and the last thing they told him was that it was going to take about three years to get it all settled," Frank said.  "It becomes a full-time job, just to keep up with your claims. There's the trip to Fayetteville, so that means taking a day off work to drive there for that. Then you get letters in about this and that, you say 'I'll send it to you when I can', you call the VA and they say ‘we can set you up an appointment in three months'.  Well 'no I can't, this is delinquent I need to get an appointment to be seen', and they say, 'we're sorry we can't get you an MRI for three months".

Another frustration echoed by the service officers is that some decisions that should be automatic are not.

"If you served in Vietnam, you were presumed to be exposed to Agent Orange," said Peterson, the Army veteran who saw action in Vietnam.  "If you have diabetes, it's a no-brainer, they have to award that to you. So, why does it take so long?"

That seems to be the magic questions that still does not have an answer. It leaves many of these local Veterans believing that it's one battle that America's fighting men and women won't win.

"I've seen it with the World War Two Veterans, of which my father was one, with the Vietnam Veterans and now the Iraqi and Afghani war Veterans," O'Reilly said.  "The VA is hoping you will get frustrated by the process and eventually give up. That's what I did back in 1970."

"People stop filing the appeals, people stop doing anything," Holtberg added to O'Reilly's comment.  "But what's happening is, because they do stop, he's dying. So is he, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it or anyone else can."    

When asked if they believed the VA would meet its goal of completing 98% of all claims within 125 days by 2015, everyone in the group answered "no."  When asked if all of the problems with the VA made these Veterans regret serving in the military, they also answered "no."

When asked for a comment on the effort to reduce the backlog of claims, Fox Wilmington received this statement from the Department of Veterans Affairs sent by the Office of Media Affairs Public Relations Specialist Meagan Lutz:

"VA has completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year the last two fiscal years, and we are on target to complete another 1 million claims in 2012. Yet too many Veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve. That's unacceptable, and VA is building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system – a lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog. This paperless technology will be fully deployed to all 56 ROs and the Appeals Management Center by June 10, 2013 to help deliver faster, better decisions for Veterans.

This plan will ensure we achieve the Secretary's goal– claim completion in 125 days with 98% accuracy in 2015. Fixing this decades-old problem isn't easy, but we have an aggressive plan that is on track, and we will work with members of Congress, and Veterans Service Organizations to see it through."

-Department of Veterans Affairs

Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) was one of 66 fellow Senators who recently wrote to President Obama, encouraging him to take immediate action to end the backlog.

Click here to read the entire letter and to see which Senators signed it. 

"North Carolina is the most military-friendly state in the nation, and we are proud that almost one million veterans call our state home," said Hagan in an email release from her office. "The men and women who sacrificed for our country deserve better than this, and I am committed to reducing the VA claims backlog effectively and efficiently by whatever means necessary."

Hagan also sent a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, asking him to send more workers to the Winston-Salem office to help address the claims backlog. Click here to read a copy of that letter.

Rep. Mike McIntyre announced the backing of a series of bills he says will help reduce the backlog of benefits claims. Click here to see a summary of those bills filed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Our veterans fought for us, protected our rights and freedoms, and we must do all we can for them," McIntyre said in an email release from his office in Washington, DC. "It is essential that we address the unacceptably large backlog of claims in order to get veterans the benefits they've earned faster. These bills represent a coordinated effort to put forth a pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to address the backlog.  Our country can, should, and must do better for our veterans!"

Copyright 2013 Fox Wilmington. All rights reserved.

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