Hundreds of Thousands of Disability Claims Pending at VA; Current Wars Likely to Strain System Further
In his last years, World War II veteran Seymour D. Lewis would stand at the door of his home in Savannah, Ga., waiting for a letter that never arrived.
The family of the former Army private, who lost the hearing in his right ear to a grenade explosion in basic training in 1944, spent years wrestling with the federal bureaucracy for his disability benefits, at one point waiting more than a year just to be told to fill out more forms.
In 2001, the Department of Veterans Affairs started sending Lewis a monthly check for $200, an amount he appealed as too little and too late for the lasting physical sacrifice he made for his country, his family said. The appeal was still pending when Lewis died last year at age 80.
“Every time I would call, they would send me a new form to fill out, with exactly the same information that they already had,” said his son Frank A. Lewis, 61, a Navy veteran. “They run you around. They keep you dangling. . . . My father was elderly. He would wait at the front door for the mailman, waiting for something from the VA. When he would get a letter, he would anxiously open it, and when it said nothing, the depression he would go into was unreal. I have a feeling they were just waiting for my father to drop dead so they wouldn’t have to pay any money. It’s been one big nightmare.”
Hundreds of thousands of veterans, many approaching the winter of their lives, await VA disability claim decisions that will provide or deny a key source of income. The monthly payments, which range from $115 to $2,471 for individuals, are available to veterans of any age whose disability is “a result of disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service,” according to the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Nearly 400,000 disability claims were pending as of February, including 135,741 that exceeded VA’s 160-day goal for processing them. The department takes six months, on average, to process a claim, and the waiting time for appeals averages nearly two years.
This already strained system may grow more overburdened in years ahead as many of the troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan return from those wars, experts say. VA gives veterans from the current conflicts top priority in claims processing.
“The projected number of claims from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will rapidly turn the disability claims problem into a crisis,” said Linda J. Bilmes, a Harvard University professor of public policy who has studied the claims process and met with VA Secretary Jim Nicholson last month to discuss ways to improve it. Bilmes, who noted that those officially wounded in combat would be a small percentage of new veterans applying for compensation, estimated the long-term cost of providing them disability benefits at $70 billion to $150 billion.
Presidents, members of Congress and VA leaders have long promised to eliminate the backlog, but still the veterans wait. Some depict a cultural problem at VA — an attitude of indifference or hostility among claims workers, a lack of appreciation for veterans’ service reflected in snubbed phone calls, slow answers and repetitive paperwork. Some even believe the delays are deliberate, a way to keep costs down by deterring new claims or postponing awards until older veterans die.
“Once we can no longer be utilized as a soldier, we are of no use to them,” said Michael Foley, 52, a former Navy intelligence specialist who served in Vietnam and Cyprus during the 1970s. “There is an impression of indifference when you are dealing with the VA benefits people. They are going to get a paycheck no matter what.”
Foley has trouble sleeping and endures nightmares from things he saw in the service. The Thomasville, N.C., resident said he is in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, but VA denied the disability benefits claim that he filed more than 2 1/2 years ago. He has appealed. Foley also wants VA compensation for a heart procedure in 2004 that he says left him in the hospital for 137 days with complications that included a paralyzed right leg.
“A lot of people think all veterans want a handout. That’s not it,” said Foley, who is unemployed and lives on less than $1,100 a month, including a $240 VA pension. “When I was in the Navy, they asked me to do things. At the time, it was exciting. My grandfather warned me that this was going to come back and bite me . . . one day. And it has. I lost my job, my house and everything else.”
Ronald R. Aument, VA deputy undersecretary for benefits, acknowledged that the department needs to do better, but he rejected the idea that the delays and denials are motivated by money concerns.
“It’s not as though we’re working on commission here,” Aument said. “There is very much a shared passion in this organization in trying to do right by veterans. . . . As far as whether or not we treat people rudely, I would certainly hope that’s just an exception as opposed to the rule.”
The department fields 7 million phone calls about disability claims each year, he said. Forty-eight percent of the workers who handle claims are veterans. In part, the process is slow so that veterans have time to submit documents and other evidence bolstering their cases, Aument said.
The VA load is getting heavier. Disability-related claims rose to 806,000 in 2006 — a 39 percent increase from the claims filed in 2000. The workforce handling them grew by 36 percent over the same period, to 7,858 employees. VA officials expect 800,000 new claims this year.
Veterans’ disabilities are also growing more complex, with increasing claims for PTSD, diabetes (often tied to herbicide exposure in Vietnam) and multiple ailments. As the veteran population grows older, those who suffer from chronic, progressive conditions — heart, joint and hearing problems, for example — file repeat claims, which account for more than half of all claims, VA says.
Earl Armstrong, 87, a former Army technician from Ravenna, Ohio, is a repeat filer.
Armstrong drove an armored vehicle and won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star while serving under Gen. George Patton in France and Germany in 1944. He suffers from PTSD and persistent ringing in his ears, the latter from the machine gun that was mounted a few feet from his head, he said. The problems have worsened, and for three years Armstrong and his wife have tried to persuade VA to raise his disability rating from 50 percent to 100 percent, which would more than triple the couple’s $781 monthly compensation to $2,610.
“I am sick of the VA and the way they’ve been treating us,” Armstrong said. “I can’t understand it. There’s too many [claims], I guess, and they don’t have enough people to handle them.”
VA handed out $34.5 billion in disability payments to more than 3.5 million veterans and their survivors last year. Aument said VA has increased its claims workforce by more than 580 people in the past year and plans to hire more than 400 additional staff by June. “The cornerstone of our long-term strategy is to develop more processing capacity,” he said.
It is too early to predict whether there will be a “huge surge” of claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Aument said, and claims for severe disabilities such as lost limbs are those VA can process fastest. Still, some older veterans say their younger counterparts are in for a rude awakening when they apply.
Army veteran Raymond L. Goings, 61, served as a military policeman in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, an experience that left the Las Vegas resident with PTSD, he said. He praised his VA psychiatrists, but not the regional office that denied the disability claim he has pursued for three years.
“Basically they said I was never being shot at, that the things I told them I saw, I didn’t see,” said Goings, who has appealed. “They wanted dates and times, even though I tried to explain to them that there are a lot of things about combat that I can’t remember.”
Jerrel Cook of Joplin, Mo., another Army veteran, breathes with the help of an oxygen tank and suffers from asthma, chronic bronchitis, hearing loss, hypertension and thyroid problems. Cook, 62, blames biological and chemical testing in Alaska while he was stationed there in the mid-1960s. VA has denied his five-year-old disability claim.
“They are playing a waiting game,” he said. “It’s easier to stall out until the veteran dies rather than to pay his claim. . . . This is ongoing practice with the VA, and it’s certainly something that needs to be corrected.”