VA Payment Disparity Problems in Illinois Go Back to 1984
The Veterans Affairs office here [in Chicago] was condemned as callous and uncaring during a raucous City Council hearing Tuesday — with the state’s top veterans advocate testifying that the office has been “at the bottom of the pile” in disability pay for 20 years.
“Why is this?” asked Allen Lynch, chief of the state’s Veterans Rights Bureau and a Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam. “The attitude of rating specialists in the Chicago VA regional office for well over 20 years has been very negative.”
A VA report released to the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday shows Illinois was ranked 46 out of 52 states and territories in 1984. While veterans from Puerto Rico received $6,500 per veteran at the top end, Illinois veterans on average received $3,002 on the other.
Previously, the VA had only released rankings going back to 1998, when Illinois was second to last.
“They’ve always had these statistics,” Lynch said, insisting the VA could have taken steps long ago to correct the disparity. “They absolutely knew what was in these reports.”
Like many of the more than 100 veterans who showed up at City Hall, Lynch detailed a litany of seemingly valid disability claims that had been denied by the VA’s Chicago office.
One case that dragged on for 10 years involved a Vietnam Marine who was involved in a firefight. Another Vietnam veteran was denied his claim, Lynch said, because the rating specialist tried unsuccessfully to verify the veteran’s information on the Internet instead of with official records.
Lynch demanded that disability raters and Chicago regional director Michael Olson be held accountable for bad rating decisions that are later won on appeal. The audience — mostly dressed in Vietnam camouflage and colorful VFW hats — responded by standing and cheering.
Aldermen James Balcer (11th) and Ed Smith (28th), who hosted the hearings in response to a Sun-Times investigation into disability pay, invited Olson to testify. Olson declined to attend, saying any questions raised at the meeting should be addressed to him in writing.
When questioned later about his absence, Olson told the Sun-Times: “I just decided not to go. I’m not going to answer your question, nor am I going to answer any more of your questions.”
Among the many politicians who testified, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill) was frequently spurred on by hollers and yelps from veterans. Schakowsky detailed several cases in which her office had to intervene before the VA would award claims for disabled veterans.
After she spoke, Schakowsky was challenged by Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), who wanted to know why Schakowsky and the other members of Illinois’ congressional delegation didn’t do more if they knew the VA was mistreating veterans.
“I don’t know that we were aware of these discrepancies and what was happening in Illinois versus the rest of the country,” said Schakowsky.
David Rogers of the Vietnam Veterans Strike Force later told the story of a disabled Vietnam veteran named “Kellog” who was billed by the VA when he sought treatment 30 years later for post-traumatic stress disorder. While the veteran was arguing the bills, he received a letter from the IRS docking his income tax return to pay for the VA hospital bills. Two months later, the veteran was billed again for the same treatment, Rogers said.
“This veteran died of a heart attack two months ago,” Rogers said after holding up Kellog’s hospital bills. “I cannot say with certainty that this stress was a direct cause, but I can almost certainly say it contributed.”
So many veterans packed the council chambers wanting to speak that another hearing will be held next Tuesday at 9 a.m.