After guns and grenades, Pa. veterans’ disability claims delayed

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Dan Blevins, 29, of Carnegie, is one of more than 10,000 veterans in Pennsylvania who have been waiting more than a year for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to rule on disability claims.


In Afghanistan, Blevins jumped from a Humvee onto an icy dirt road and broke his right foot. Even after surgery, he has days when it is too painful to walk.


Since duty in Iraq, he gets migraines that feel as if “somebody is taking a hammer to my head.”


Because of too many bombs, guns and grenades, he has tinnitus that he believes has cut his hearing by half.


Blevins’ case is caught up in the Pittsburgh regional office, which has one of the worst claims records in the nation. It is ranked 51st out of 58 regional offices, with 79 percent of its cases backlogged for more than four months, including 3,800 veterans waiting more than a year for a ruling.


Veterans served by the Philadelphia office fare better. It is ranked 21st in the country, with 64 percent of its cases backlogged, including 6,300 veterans waiting more than a year.


The problem has been in the spotlight for several years.


In 2010, President Obama pledged to veterans that he would “cut those backlogs, slash those wait times, and deliver your benefits sooner.”


Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki promised to reduce errors and clear the backlog – defined as claims pending for more than 125 days – by 2015.


Instead, the logjam has widened and the error rate barely budged.


“This is truly a crisis,” said Paul Sullivan, a former VA claims adjustor who directs veterans outreach for the Bergmann & Moore law firm in Bethesda, Md.


No one seems to know when it will end.


Devastating delays

Blevins, who served in the army for a decade, said he filed his claim March 3, 2012, and hasn’t heard anything from the office since September, when he received a letter stating that his claim was being processed.


Disability payments would help, but mostly he wants physical therapy for the mangled foot and medication for the migraines.


Delays of even a few months can be devastating for veterans.


Many war veterans are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Disabled veterans are often unable to get jobs. They might not have health insurance. Banks are foreclosing on their houses and landlords are evicting them. Their cars are being repossessed. They are running up credit-card debt.


Blevins counts himself lucky. He lives with his fiancée. He works full-time and is studying for a bachelor’s degree in history at Robert Morris University. The VA pays for his education and a stipend of $1,542 a month while he attends college.


As of April 20, about 802,000 disability claims were pending nationally. More than two-thirds were considered backlogged because they were more than four months old.


The VA announced on April 19 that it will expedite claims that have been on hold for a year or more.


Though the Philadelphia office performs better than the Pittsburgh office on many measures, it is not without problems. The VA’s Inspector General recently sampled 60 disability claims from the Philadelphia office and discovered errors that resulted in four veterans receiving an extra $194,130 in payments. Also, some Iraq War veterans were not notified that they were entitled to treatment for mental disorders.


Hiccups or screwups?

No one disputes that the VA’s job is particularly difficult with the large group of veterans returning.


The VA is testing more than 40 new programs to fix the problem, even as it juggles an ever-growing caseload. It’s kind of like fixing a race car as it speeds around the track.


More than a million disability claims were processed last year. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with more complicated injuries. Only recently, Vietnam veterans began receiving payments for illnesses now believed to be caused by Agent Orange poisoning.


The Pittsburgh office of the Veterans Benefits Administration serves more than 364,000 veterans in Western Pennsylvania and the northern panhandle of West Virginia, as well as cases from veterans who live in other countries. The foreign cases account for almost one-third of the workload. They can take longer to handle, VA officials said, because it is harder to get medical records.


The Philadelphia office covers 40 counties in central and eastern Pennsylvania, and parts of New Jersey.


Nearly all claims are filed on paper, and the VA is betting that replacing paper-based claims with electronic records will improve productivity by 45 to 60 percent.


The Pittsburgh office began using new software in March. “It’s actually pretty cool,” said Jon Kennell, a veterans service representative who evaluates claims. “There are still some kinks, but they are getting worked out very quickly.”


Kennell, also a veteran, said he is speaking from his experience, and not on behalf of the VA. He said new procedures also are starting to reduce redundant work.


Still, it is unclear whether the new software and procedures will eliminate the backlog by 2015, as pledged. Last June, the VA said the software “cut the time to process claims nearly in half” at test sites, and in January the agency said the software “will continue to increase quality, accuracy, and the timeliness of claims decisions.”


Two recent government evaluations contradict the VA’s optimism.


In December, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the software was “not yet ready for national deployment,” because of software performance issues and delays in scanning paper files.


In February, the VA’s Office of Inspector General reported that tasks that used to take four minutes to complete were taking 18 minutes. The Inspector General concluded that the tests were not large enough to assure that the new system will work.


A tense exchange

Senators also expressed skepticism at a March 13 hearing.


“Many of us have serious doubts” about eliminating the backlog by 2015, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.


The VA had previously predicted that the backlog would begin to narrow in 2012, but now expects the gap to widen into 2014, noted Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina. “The VA claims process has been plagued by errors, delays, and backlogs for many years,” Burr said. “In the latest attempt to fix this system, VA hired thousands of claims processing staff, spent millions developing new IT solutions, and rolled out dozens of other initiatives. But this has yet to translate into better service for veterans, their families and their survivors.”


Three times during the hearing, Burr asked Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits, to provide performance metrics that had not been given to the committee. Three times Hickey evaded the request.


Burr threatened to fence off money unless the VA provided the numbers.


“I would like to be more optimistic that VA can meet this deadline,” Burr said in an email to PublicSource, “but their reluctance to release information related to the initiative, in addition to a poor track record thus far, missed milestones, and shifting timelines make me skeptical that they will be able to achieve this goal by 2015.”


Reach Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or bheltzel@publicsource.org.



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