Veterans Affairs a tough beast to tackle
By Chris Rosenblum
As a decorated Army Ranger, Matthew Berrena (pictured left) fought in the Grenada, Panama and Persian Gulf campaigns. But he wasn’t willing to wage one war — with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Berrena, 44, of Pennsylvania Furnace, filed VA disability compensation claims for injuries suffered during his 22 years of service. Those include anti-tank shrapnel lodged in his right side from a friendly fire incident on the border of Iraq and Kuwait.
It took almost a year before Berrena heard back from the VA: Five of his nine claims were approved. Each, however, was assigned a low 10 percent disability rating. Illogically, that added up to a ruling that he was, overall, 40 percent disabled.
“Army math,” the retired sergeant major joked….
He could appeal the VA’s decision. He probably won’t — even though he’s not sure why some claims were denied, or of the basis for the ratings. Other veterans are in worse shape, he said, and he’d rather enjoy time with his two young sons than spend months or even years taking on the VA bureaucracy.
“You don’t want to wrestle with the beast,” he said. “It’s a big beast.”
Many veterans try. Some die trying. A Knight Ridder investigation of VA records showed the agency, even after recent efforts to improve, still denies veterans rightful benefits, or subjects them to years of appeals. Knight Ridder found some veterans whose claims died with them, leaving their families nothing.
The investigation also revealed pattern of errors and inconsistent rulings among the VA’s network of regional offices. Inadequately trained service officers, who help veterans negotiate the complex claims system, are partly to blame, the investigation concluded.
In Pennsylvania, veterans work with service officers employed by county governments, or with service officers, mostly volunteers, who are sponsored by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans.
“Both are allowed to file claims,” said Stanley Adams, a Navy veteran who functions as Centre County’s service officer. “Some (veterans organization) service officers are highly trained; some aren’t.”
Adams, with 18 years as director of the Centre County Veterans Affairs Office, is accredited by the VA and receives 16 hours of training each year to stay current.
That’s not necessarily true of his counterparts across the state, said Richard Hudzinski, of the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council, a nonprofit advocacy group for veterans and their families.
No uniform training standards exist for county service officers, and their training, experience and success rates vary widely, Hudzinski said. A recent council study led by Hudzinski explored why Pennsylvania lags 21 percent behind the national average in obtaining VA disability benefits despite having the fifth-largest veterans population.
Instead of a system where each county dictates the standards for its service officers, the study recommended the state form a Cabinet-level veterans affairs department responsible for training and supervisingcounty service officers.
A department, the study said, also could make more state service officers available to veterans who lack access to VA offices or medical facilities.
Such steps, according to the study, would help promote awareness of VA benefits, expedite claims and bring more VA money to Pennsylvania veterans at a time when budget cuts within the agency have caused fierce competition among states for funds.
Hudzinski, an Army veteran, said the council wants to see Pennsylvania serve veterans as well as states such as West Virginia, Texas and North Carolina.
“It’s our social responsibility and moral responsibility to take care of them,” he said.
West Virginia, for example, did away with county service officers in favor of a statewide system, Hudzinski said. The average disability payment for a claim processed in Huntington, W.Va., is $916.96, according to VA statistics. In the Philadelphia region, which serves veterans in Centre County, the average payment is $682.06.
The average length of time an appeal is pending in Huntington is 298 days; in the Philadelphia region, it’s 546 days.
Awareness is an issue
Bits of an anti-tank shell still are buried in Berrena’s hand and forearm. A parachute jump long ago injured his shoulder, leaving him with chronic pain and limited reach over his head.
“Kind of like arthritis,” he said.
For that and other conditions, he receives $546 a month.
He also has diminished vision in one eye that he thinks was caused by shrapnel. The VA disagreed and rejected that claim.
On the whole, Berrena considers himself fortunate.
His elite Rangers battalion had its own physicians and legal experts, resources he used when he filed disability claims about six months before retiring in 2001. He had another advantage over rank-and-file soldiers. As a senior non-commissioned officer, he had seen plenty of discharges and knew what questions to ask.
Many soldiers don’t know, he said, in spite of mandatory Army briefings. But passivity can be costly. The VA generally reveals answers only when requested, Berrena said.
“If you’re not doing the legwork aggressively, you definitely get left in the dust,” he said.
Among veterans nationwide, awareness seems to be an issue. According to the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council, 13 percent of all veterans do not know about the VA’s compensation program. About 40 percent of veterans with disabling conditions believe they’re not entitled to benefits.
Adams, however, said he’s seeing more claims than ever. Some of that’s due to better information from military transition assistance programs and professional service officers who often provide counsel right on military bases, he said.
But he gives some credit to the VA itself.
“I’m seeing men now, they left the service 20 years ago, they weren’t told to file for things,” Adams said. “Now, they are.”
Giving up the fight
Even informed veterans sometimes don’t pursue their rights.
“One of my buddies told me, ‘It’s not worth the hassle of the paperwork,'” Berrena said.
That’s where knowledgeable service officers can help.
Adams has advised veterans who filed their own claims, but said most need to be guided along the paper trail, starting with the application.
“It’s a very complicated form in terms of the questions,” Adams said.
A large packet usually arrives from the VA about three months later. Dense with legalese, it basically details the veteran’s rights. Often, Adams said, bewildered veterans overlook the critical end, where the VA summarizes what records it has and what it needs to continue processing the claim.
Buried in the letter may be an important deadline or medical exam date which, if missed, likely spells doom for a claim.
“(The packet) drives us in the business crazy,” Adams said. “It infuriates us, but we know why it needs to be done.”
For all his savvy, Berrena found the VA’s correspondence a bit confusing.
“It seems that it’s just so much,” he said. “You get information overload.”
In return, the VA wants information back — discharge papers, medical records, witness accounts corroborating accidents or combat. Some can be hard to produce. Many veterans’ military records were destroyed in a 1973 St. Louis fire. Doctors retire or die, and files can’t be located.
“That leaves a big blank of 40 years sometimes in terms of medical documentation,” Adams said. “That continuity of care can be a big stumbling block with a claim.”
There has been progress. In recent years, Adams said, the Internet has given veterans an invaluable tool for tracking down comrades, finding records or researching conditions.
And the VA has relaxed its burden of proof for combat injuries. Veterans once had to tie a claim to a particular incident or campaign. Now, it’s enough to just show the service could have plausibly caused a condition.
Adams said the VA uses the phrase “It is as likely as not.”
“If it’s 50-50 evidence, the vet wins,” he said.
Even denials are more helpful than in the past, offering specific reasons that can be investigated for appeals, Adams said. But the system still has problems. Agency regulation changes can set back claims, and it can take years to resolve an appeal.
For retirees, the payments themselves come with a catch: They’re deducted from pension checks.
Berrena sees this every month but remains philosophical about the VA. The agency wound up paying for him to take an electrical course, and now he’s a licensed electrician.
“So the system is there,” he said. “You have to know which strings to pull and which buttons to push.”