Local veterans filing disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits office in Buffalo wait on average 311 days to learn whether they qualify for disability payments.
If that sounds like a long time, consider the veterans in Cleveland. They wait 463 days.
In Indianapolis, it’s 488 days. And in New York City, 501 days.
The numbers provided by the VA suggest that the Buffalo office is doing a better job than many other offices across the country.
Yet when veterans finally learn how much disability they qualify for and they disagree with the percentage of the service-related disability, a bureaucratic labyrinth awaits. Attorneys, more doctors, a Washington, D.C., review board and, in some cases, legal action in a special veterans court will follow.
President Obama and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki say the backlog of pending claims, nearly half a million, is steadily decreasing because the Department of Veterans Affairs is working more efficiently. The goal is to eliminate the backlog by 2015 and give veterans answers on their claims within 125 days.
Veterans and their advocates, while grateful for the effort to shorten the waiting period after years of promises for quicker determinations on claims, worry that the overhauled system could end up creating more errors that will force more veterans to appeal and face years of waiting.
Kenneth W. Waite, a former Marine from Jamestown who served three tours of duty in the Vietnam War, feels he is fighting a losing battle to get 100 percent disability for his post-traumatic stress disorder that he says makes him unemployable.
“The VA says they’re only 300 and some days behind. But they are three years behind in my case,” Waite said of his disputed claim.
Maureen G. Rasmussen is still suffering from injuries in an automobile accident while serving in the Navy during the Persian Gulf War. The VA has rejected her request to increase her compensation.
Financially crippled by that decision, Rasmussen said that for a while, she could no longer afford to live on her own.
“I had to live in my mother’s basement in West Seneca for two years. It wasn’t fun, especially when you’re broke and can’t do anything,” said Rasmussen, 44, who only recently moved to South Buffalo after qualifying for Social Security disability benefits.
Buffalo attorney Jeffrey M. Freedman, who specializes in disputed compensation cases, says his office receives more than 50 calls a week from area veterans seeking help with their claims.
“Helping these clients is like wrestling with an elephant or rolling a large boulder up a hill,” Freedman said. “The soldier who is shot on the battlefield can fight three to five years to get a disability check.”
And that is why there is so much concern. No one wants to end up in a drawn-out fight that takes a toll not only financially, but causes “stress that contributes to further health problems,” Freedman said.
VA officials say that they understand the concern and point out that they not only want to eliminate the backlog, but achieve a “98 percent accuracy” rating in processing claims.
To get there, they have authorized overtime for claims processors, installed a new computer system, revised criteria for evaluating claims and shifted older claims from VA regional offices with bigger backlogs to offices that are more current, such as Buffalo, where there are 7,658 pending claims.
Despite the effort, there is skepticism among veterans who end up disputing their disability percentage ratings and, as well, among their advocates.
‘They go in a pile’
In 2012, the VA’s Board of Veterans Appeals ruled that nearly 3 in 4 appealed claims brought before it contained inaccurate or insufficient information. Such cases were sent back to the regional VA office where they originated to rectify the problems, according to David E. Autry, deputy national director of communications for Disabled American Veterans in Washington.
“Once a case is referred back to the regional office, they go in the pile with all the other claims, but they are not counted in the backlog inventory,” Autry said in questioning whether an accurate picture is being presented on backlogged cases.
At present, the appeals board is handling 47,000 disputed cases, including Waite’s.
Waite, 68, says he may end up dying before he sees a penny from the government for his disabilities. He filed his disability claim in January 2010, after the VA diagnosed him with PTSD connected with his wartime service. He has had emotional problems for his entire adult life, he says, but has roughed it out on his own.
His claim was completed in June of that year with a determination that he was 30 percent disabled. Looking back over his life, he realized that his condition had created hardships that had ultimately turned him into almost a hermit.
“I’ve had nine or 10 different jobs and quit my last factory job seven years ago. I have trouble getting along with people. I get upset real easy. I go to bed at about 10, 11 o’clock. Many, many nights, I’ll lay in bed, and at 3 in the morning I am still laying awake,” said Waite, who is married but says he has strained relations with most of his relatives.
In high school, Waite said, he played basketball and baseball and joined the school band, first playing the trumpet, then the tuba.
But in February 1963, his world changed. He enlisted in Marine Corps and was among the first major waves of troops to enter Vietnam.
By his third tour of duty there, he says, the danger had increased dramatically.
“Each tour was bloodier than the last. We stacked wounded and dead Americans on our tanks and transported them,” he said. “In the last convoy I was in, we got about five miles from where we were going, and the tank behind me hit a land mine that I just missed by inches. Lots of blood was shed over there.”
At 5-feet-10, he had begun that final tour weighing 160 pounds. By the end of it, he weighed 130. He never regained the weight and now sees that as a symbol of his troubled life.
Diagnosed with PTSD
After he was diagnosed with PTSD more than three years ago, he joined a veterans support group and was encouraged to challenge the 30 percent disability rating.
The increased monthly compensation would be substantial, he said.
“If I were to get a 100 percent rating, it would be about $3,000 a month,” he said.
As it stands now, he gets by on $1,200 in Social Security and a few hundred dollars more in small pensions from various jobs he has held.
Waite says he hopes the VA will act on his appeal before he dies.
“Hurry up,” he said is the message he’d like to send to the VA officials.
For Rasmussen, her service-connected disability occurred stateside in a motor vehicle crash at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia during a rainstorm.
Since April 2010, she has been trying to get the VA to increase the percentage of her disability from 40 percent to 100 percent. She says her increasing health problems are all connected to incidents during her years of service.
“The back tires on my car hit a wet spot and spun me out and threw the car across the street, and it spun to the left and back into a telephone pole. The whole right side of the car was crushed,” said Rasmussen, who had enlisted in the Navy in 1988, seeking to qualify for college education benefits. “I had neck and back injuries.”
Later, her knees began to buckle when she climbed ladders in the ship she was assigned to serve.
In 1994, she was medically discharged.
With a 40 percent disability rating for her damaged knees, neck and back, she currently receives $569 a month in compensation. Various medications she has taken over the years to treat the disabilities have created additional medical problems, including an inability to control her bowels.
“My irritable bowel syndrome made it harder and harder every day to work as a clerk in a law firm. There were disabling effects from the condition, and I could no longer work,” Rasmussen said.
When the VA refused to increase her disability rating to 100 percent, she filed an appeal last year, and that is still pending. As time passed, Rasmussen said, she slowly went broke because she could not earn a paycheck.
“I had my car repossessed. I had two credit cards that I couldn’t pay. It changed my whole lifestyle. Then I had to give up my apartment and move back to my mother’s home,” Rasmussen said.
But in the spring of 2012, she caught a break. She had filed paperwork for Social Security disability and was granted a monthly benefit of $1,269. That allowed her to get an apartment in South Buffalo and reclaim her independence.
She said she was certain the VA would move ahead and approve her appeal because Social Security had recognized her disability.
“I thought it would be a lock on my VA disability claim once I got the Social Security disability benefit,” Rasmussen said, adding that she believes that the VA is overwhelmed with claims and that is why hers has taken more than three years.
Buffalo VA benefits officials who were contacted by The Buffalo News said they could not specifically comment on Rasmussen’s or Waite’s appeals but requested contact information on the two veterans.
There is no question, though, that the VA has its hands full, with recent expansions of diseases now qualifying as service-connected disabilities, ranging from Agent Orange-related medical conditions for Vietnam veterans; nine different sicknesses associated with Gulf War Illness, and PTSD for combat veterans dating as far back as World War II.
Shinseki said those decisions “significantly expanded access to earned benefits while also impacting the backlog of disability claims, but clearly it was the right thing to do for veterans of all eras.”
Backlog rate of 63%
Currently nationwide, there are 717,411 claims pending, and 63 percent of them are considered backlogged. Of the 7,658 pending claims at the Buffalo regional office, 61 percent are backlogged
The VA here says it continues to make progress in its turnaround rate on claims.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs and the employees of the Buffalo regional office are committed to eliminating the national backlog of compensation claims. Currently, there are less than 20 two-year-old claims at the Buffalo office,” said Donna P. Terrell, director of the VA’s Buffalo benefits office.
“Additionally since June 20, 2013, the employees of the Buffalo office have reduced our number of claims over one year old by over 40 percent.”
Autry, of Disabled American Veterans, says that the VA is making progress but that in order for it to be meaningful, the work needs to be done thoroughly and accurately.
“The answer is to get it right the first time,”Autry said, “and if you are going to get it right, you have to have accountability all up and down the line for doing the job properly, instead of focusing on moving as many cases as you can.”