Veterans discover entirely new battleFrom: "\"Doc\" Melson" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
discover entirely new battle to obtain benefits
VA's disability benefits system is so inefficient that more than a half-
claims hang in bureaucratic limbo.
in the Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledge that the
is badly flawed and has been for years. The new VA secretary,
Principi, promises improvements. But some veterans are
citing failed initiatives by past secretaries.
are more than a few veterans like 72-year-old Wayne Young of
Falls, who has been battling the VA over his benefits for 44
even fairly routine cases can take years. Here's why:
claims are questionable. Determining whether a veteran's illness
injury stems from his military service, sometimes decades earlier, can
a complex medical question.
no limit on the number of times a veteran can appeal the VA's
Some whose claims are rejected keep presenting new
to keep the case going.
are not allowed to hire an attorney in the initial phases of filing
and appealing rejections. They can hire an attorney only in the
phase - an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans
that point, critics say, cases often have been so badly handled that
the best attorney can't salvage them.
of veterans organizations represent most veterans in the
stages of a claim. Critics complain that the VA subsidizes these
and under those circumstances they can't be as
as needed in presenting claims.
overworked VA staff regularly fouls up, often ignoring the
own rules in deciding claims. When the regional offices
rejected a claim, a veteran can appeal to the Board of Veterans
Last year, that panel overturned the regional offices 26
of the time and sent back another 30 percent of cases. The VA
appeals court returned 64 percent of its cases, mostly because
returned cases clog the system and add to the veterans' wait.
is a system where there is no accountability, no one is
said Kenneth Carpenter, an attorney who represents
"At every level, from the veterans service organization rep, to
VA ratings officer, to the hearing officer, all the way up to the court,
one is responsible for the screw-ups."
Frank Nebeker retired last year after 11 years as chief judge of
U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. His experience
him to call for a restructuring of the VA benefits
which distributes about $22 billion a year for disability,
and other benefits to more than 3.2 million veterans or their
Secretary Principi saw the claims problem worsening while he was
secretary and then acting secretary under former President
Bush. Since he left the VA in 1993, however, the situation has
address the problem, Principi has done what other secretaries did
- set up a task force.
task force, quick fixes
Vice Adm. Daniel Cooper is head of the task force, which is
to get under way this week. He has been charged with finding
fixes without looking to Congress for new legislation.
a convoluted process that we have to make better," Cooper said,
that he has been told the VA claims system is the most
in government. The task force will report to Principi in the
said he's reviewing the many reports done in the past decade.
of reforms have been proposed, and the VA has
some of them.
of the most expensive fixes was a $200 million computer system
in a few years ago that didn't speed up the system. Hundreds of
workers have been hired, but the VA acknowledges that hasn't
reform was to give each veteran only one staff person to work
his claims process. In the past, it was an assembly line with a
employee picking up the claim at different stages.
VA also has started getting veterans timely medical exams. Those
often missing or from long ago, are vitally important in deciding
veterans are skeptical that the task force will do much good.
the same song every four years when the new guard comes in,"
Young, a World War II and Korean War veteran who has been
for increased disability benefits for four decades.
Young was 16, he volunteered for the Army. He left the service
years later because of complications from an ulcer. Young said
for the ulcer at a VA hospital in 1957 left him worse off.
receives $194 a month from the VA but believes his award should
increased because the surgery left him in constant pain that hindered
ability to work.
year, the special court of veterans appeals sent back his case - in
because no current medical exam had been done - giving him
chance to get higher benefits.
VA has fought valiantly against this little veteran who did so much
them," Young said. "It's been so long, so long."
is one of about 100,000 vets mired in the appeals system. The
also has fallen behind in processing original disability claims, with
the Civil War, the government limited how much a veteran could
an attorney to help him seek benefits; since 1933, the government
prohibited veterans from appealing VA decisions in civil court.
1988, Congress banned veterans from paying any amount for a
except when appealing to the new court it established: the U.S.
of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
are stunned to find out they can't hire a lawyer," said Sandra
a Columbus attorney who represents veterans.
appeals court can do little more than decide if the VA has followed
rules and, if not, send the case back into the already burdened
who take cases to the special court say veterans would
greatly if they could get legal representation early in the process.
Judge Nebeker, former chief judge of the appeals court, agrees.
Principi should "urge Congress to get out of the business of
politics and benefit the veterans by letting them have
estimates that banning lawyers adds three or four years to a
that already takes nearly four years.
veterans hire lawyers has been anathema to Congress, the VA
most of the politically powerful veteran service organizations.
nothing that's been shown or proven to me that because a
can't get a lawyer, he's been screwed," said David Gorman,
director of the Disabled American Veterans. In 1986, the
and other groups opposed a move to let veterans hire lawyers
use district courts.
veterans believe Congress and the VA don't want them to hire
because it would cost too much.
purposeful," said Phil Cushman, a Vietnam veteran and president
Veterans for Due Process. "If they paid everyone the benefits they're
it would break the VA bank."
said he started the group after a VA hearing officer in 1974
him and then laughed when Cushman said he would hire a
to get his benefits.
and free rent, too
primarily use free representatives of the veteran service
such as the DAV, American Legion and Veterans of
nonprofit organizations usually have offices down the hall from
VA regional offices. The office space, which costs nearly $6 million
year, postage and other benefits are provided free by the VA.
say they represent veterans for free, but the VA subsidizes
said attorney Carpenter. "The VA subsidizes their office space,
and other critics say that the setup makes the veterans
beholden to the VA. At the same time, having the corner on
veterans ensures the groups political clout. But Gorman
others scoff at the criticism.
lawyers who work with veterans say that while some veterans
representatives do an excellent job, the majority aren't equipped
deal with the complex laws that govern veterans benefits.
veterans who have been through the process agree.
started out with the veterans service organizations for my benefits,
when you try getting back with your rep, you can never reach
said James Bieler, 54, a Missouri veteran who was in the Navy
the Vietnam War. "These guys don't have any incentive to call
back. They know very little about the regulations."
years of appeals, Bieler, who has hepatitis C, got his final denial
the board and hired a lawyer to appeal to the special court.
the VA found him to be 100 percent disabled.
Vietnam Veterans of America, which has volunteer lawyers
cases, had the best record for getting veterans benefits last
according to VA documents. They also believe vets should be
to pay lawyers.
not every organization makes the same effort, said Leonard Selfon,
of veterans benefits for the Vietnam Veterans of America.
worked as a VA lawyer for about 10 years.
veterans groups simply send a one-page statement that the
is entitled to benefits, and " we trust that the board will give its
and compassionate review.' Boom, that's the case," he said.
long is the wait?
takes an average of about 200 days at any of the 58 regional offices
make decisions on the hundreds of thousands of claims filed each
50,000 or more veterans appeal each year - sometimes because
were turned down completely but more often because they are
a higher monthly payment.
veteran first appeals at the regional office. If additional documents
filed, hundreds of days - sometimes a thousand or more - are
to the process before the veteran can seek a formal appeal to
board. At that stage, they face another 200 days.
Adams made it through the long wait.
husband, Delmar, had a heart attack in 1943 before being shipped
to fight in France and Germany. His heart problem worsened, and
1980, the VA gave the Missouri farmer a 100 percent disability. He
two years later at 59.
filed for benefits. "He had been getting $1,199 a month, and it
gone," she said. "They gave me, I guess it was a pension, of $271
said he didn't die service-connected,' " she said.
the next 15 years, she continued to appeal. Her case finally made
way to the special appeals court, where she was permitted to hire a
two years, the court had sent her case back and she was
monthly benefits. She also received 4½ years of retroactive
don't know why they picked 4½ years," Adams said. "They should
gone all the way back. I'm appealing that.
told them I was never giving up. I said, You might get a letter from
the day I die.' "
this day to the ending of the world,
we in it shall be remember'd;
few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
he to-day that sheds his blood with me
be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
day shall gentle his condition:
gentlemen in England now a-bed
think themselves accursed they were not here,
hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day".
Henry V by William Shakespeare