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Long appeals leave older vets without benefits for years

May. 26, 2014 - 12:28PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Cases involving the appeal of veterans benefits rulings take almost 19 months to resolve, Department of Veterans Affairs records show, and advocates say the crush of new claims is hurting older veterans.

At least 350,000 veterans of wars before those in Iraq and Afghanistan have outstanding appeals of benefits decisions, according to VA records.

Meanwhile the VA has touted how much it has cut the backlog of benefits claims that have taken longer than 125 days to resolve from 611,000 in 2013 to 344,000 in April.

Progress in resolving initial benefits claims has come at the expense of settling older claims, said Glenn Bergmann, a former VA attorney who now fights veterans’ appeals cases at Bergmann & Moore LLC.

“They pull all the back-of-the-line guys to front, but they stole from Peter to pay Paul, and these veterans have been abandoned again,” Bergmann said. “They’re dying while they’re waiting.”

The time it takes the agency to handle claims or treat patients at its hospitals has come under more intense scrutiny following the reports that some veterans died while awaiting care at VA hospitals and that some hospital administrators altered documents to make the delays look shorter than they really were.

Walinda West, a VA spokeswoman, said a simple appeals case takes an average of 562 days, but each supplemental piece of evidence can extend that delay by another 200 days.

Bergmann said veterans appeal their cases after they are told their medical conditions were not caused by military service. That often includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or respiratory cancer that could be traced to exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant routinely used in the Vietnam War. The cases often involve incorrectly filled out forms, improperly given medical exams or lost medical records.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said last week he is proud of the reduced backlog in benefit claims and will keep pushing for the department to improve. “As I testified before Congress on May 15,” Shinseki said in a statement, “I take any allegations about patient safety or employee misconduct very seriously. The reports of veterans’ negative experiences while seeking VA care are of great personal concern to me.”

Appeals have always taken a long time to resolve, Bergmann said. “It’s nothing new, but it’s finally being picked up,” he said. “The president talks. The secretary’s in hot water. Things are finally happening.”

A 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service found it took an average of 1,094 days for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to reach a decision after a veteran filed a claim. Ashton Habighurst, a case manager at Bergmann & Moore, said the law firm finds that many cases fall through the cracks of the VA’s huge bureaucracy.

A December report by the American Legion also found that 55 percent of 260 recently adjudicated claims had errors. The VA’s West said about 11 percent of veterans file an official notice of disagreement, and about 5 percent make it to the appeals board.

The VA, West said, is trying to fix the appeals backlog by doing the following:

■ Moving to a paperless records system.

■ Using video teleconference hearings.

■ Hiring 100 more full-time appeals workers.

■ Standardizing appeals documentation.

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