– Houston has highest appeals rate in the U.S. as benefits claims set records –
Borrowing for war and not paying the servicemembers who fight
Despite an influx of funds and staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the backlog of claims for benefits continues to grow at a record pace in Houston and nationwide.
VA received 1 million claims in 2009 for the first time in the department’s 80-year history. In Houston, the situation has worsened since the Houston Chronicle first reported on the local impact of the backlog more than a year ago.
The number of veterans waiting for the Houston VA Regional Office to process their disability compensation claims jumped from about 19,000 this time last year to nearly 24,000, an increase of 25 percent.
Almost half of those claims have been pending for more than four months, compared to 37 percent nationwide.
“Clearly Houston is suffering under significant strain, and their office needs attention from Washington so our veterans can get accurate and fast claims decisions,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the nonprofit Veterans for Common Sense.
“So many veterans in Houston have been waiting too long,” Sullivan said.
He’s particularly troubled that Houston has 12,060 claims in appeal, the highest number in the country for the second year in a row.
“The high number of veterans’ claims awaiting an appeal decision — which often takes four to five years – indicates the Houston office may still have serious and significant quality and accuracy problems,” he said.
The Houston Regional Office, which serves almost 760,000 veterans and their dependents in 90 Texas counties, is dedicated to the timely and accurate processing of disability claims, VA spokeswoman Jennifer Heim said in a written statement.
“We are steadily reducing the inventory of pending claims, while continuing to address the appeals,” Heim said. “We have seen a significant increase in productivity within the existing workforce.”
In August, for example, the office completed 3,898 disability compensation claims, up from 2,862 in the same month last year.
Waiting since 2003
Heim attributed the significant increase in claims and appeals in Houston to outreach efforts to communicate VA’s mission and the type of benefits available to veterans. She said the Houston VA Regional Office recently hired 50 veteran service representatives and promoted nearly 40 others to help reduce the backlog. The office also continues to outsource some of its claims processing to other regional offices, she said.
Vietnam veteran James Davis, 59, of Willis has been waiting since 2003 for a final decision on his request for increased disability benefits.
Davis, his wife, and his disabled mother barely scrape by on the $845 disability check he gets from the VA monthly for post-traumatic stress disorder and shattered knees.
“All I get is a letter every six months explaining to me that they are still evaluating my status,” Davis said.
“I’ve been waiting for what, seven years now,” he said. “Hell, I’m 59 years old. They’ll wait till I’m dead till they finally make up a decision. And even then it probably won’t be in my favor.”
Sullivan said the growing backlog is the cumulative effect of new VA rules about PTSD, Agent Orange and Gulf War-related illnesses, a tidal wave of new claims from half a million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and the nation’s economic crisis, which left many veterans without private health insurance to treat their military-related medical problems.
“That’s five different things that all slammed VA at the same time,” Sullivan said. “VA has some initiatives, to their credit, that they hope will mitigate the disaster.”
More workers hired
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki recently touted the department’s efforts to reduce the backlog at the annual American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee, according to American Forces Press Service.
“We intend to break the back of the backlog this year,” Shinseki said at the convention last week.
VA hired more than 3,500 claims workers this year to deal with the backlog. The department also invested hundreds of millions in a computerized claims process and electronic records system.
Shinseki said the goal is to reduce the time it takes the department to process a claim from the current average of 160 days to 125 days by the end of the year.
Does anyone care?
Vietnam veteran Bain Slack, 68, of Houston, isn’t holding out too much hope that VA will become more efficient. He’s been waiting more than two years for VA to decide on his appeal for increased disability benefits.
Slack, who flew almost 800 combat missions as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Vietnam, became disabled in 2004 after suffering stroke and aneurism of the aorta. He’s also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, ringing in the ears and hearing loss.
Slack said he’s submitted extensive medical and military records that connect his health problems to his service, so he can’t understand why his appeal is taking so long.
Slack and his wife, a schoolteacher, recently had to put their house up for sale. He hasn’t been able to work for six years because of his disability, and money is tight. Sometimes he doubts anyone at the VA cares.
“The VA is a national disgrace,” Slack said. “They are routinely denying our military veterans benefits that we have earned on the battlefield, and it’s gotta stop.”