Printed on: December 09, 2012

VA benefits struggling to keep up with claims

By Zach Kyle
zkyle@postregister.com

Tom Merrill of Irwin thought his days of fighting were done when he came home from the Vietnam War.

He never imagined he'd end up on the losing side of a seven-year fight with the Department of Veterans Affairs over disability pay for injuries stemming from his service.

"The VA has done nothing for me," Merrill said. "They turned me down and I just gave up. I'm 69 years old. I don't have time left in my life to keep wasting on the VA."

The Veterans Benefits Administration -- the arm of the VA that processes disability claims and determines what benefits and payments veterans receive -- is struggling to keep up with the influx of claims from Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans.

The national average for the VA's response to claims was 262 days in fiscal year 2012 -- 40 percent longer than the year before, according to a Nov. 29 article in the Idaho Statesman.

As of Dec. 3, the Boise VA Medical Center's average was 184 days, according to the Center for Advanced Reporting.

The VA's Salt Lake City facility had an average wait time of 251 days with a backlog of nearly 18,000 claims, according to an August article by the Center of Advanced Reporting.

That Aug. 29 article pointed to several culprits responsible for the backlog, starting with the fact that only four facilities are using the VA's new digital records-keeping system:

"By 2015, (VA undersecretary for benefits Allison) Hickey said, all 58 offices will be computerized. In the meantime, new claims are arriving more quickly than the backlog is being cleared, so without dramatic improvement, disabled veterans will face even longer wait times in the future."

According to the VA, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan claim an average of 8.5 disabilities per veteran, nearly double that of Vietnam vets.

A culmination of factors is responsible for veterans of those wars needing more treatment once they return stateside, according to the Center for Advanced Reporting.

Improvements in battlefield medicine mean Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are more likely to survive multiple deployments, the VA said in a statement, and as a result, veterans are returning with triple the medical issues of previous generations, driving the complexity of these claims and their associated workload to an all-time high.

About 1 million active service members will join the ranks of veterans in the next five years, and the VA predicts about 1.25 million will file benefit claims next year, stretching an already taxed system.

"It's a Catch-22," Salt Lake City VA region spokeswoman Jill Atwood said. "Yes, we are going to take care of a lot more vets and compensate them and make sure they get health care and education. But we'll also have a claims department which is inundated. I know they are working hard over there, but there is a backlog."

Appeals for rejected disability took an average of 3.5 years to process, according to the Center of Advanced Reporting article.

But some appeals -- like Merrill's -- drag on for years more.

While his veterans' disability claims were denied, Merrill does receive help through the VA's health care system. He pays just $9 a month for each of the 24 prescriptions he takes for degenerative heart and bone conditions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Merrill travels to the Pocatello facility for checkups about twice a year. Doctors there set him up with hearing aids.

He believes the diseases and PTSD are a result of his time in Vietnam. He said his claims failed because he couldn't prove the events happened, especially those that led to his PTSD, in part because other soldiers who could verify his story were dead.

"I don't want a whole lot of money or anything," Merrill said. "I gave my time, and I just expect a little in return when I need it."

Merrill stopped pursuing his claims three years ago. He didn't know that in 2010, the VA softened some of its eligibility rules, especially for PTSD and a long list of conditions linked to Agent Orange, Atwood said.

Merrill said he was done with the VA regardless of the changes.

Atwood said the VA struggles to educate veterans about eligibility, and in cases like Merrill's, the VA struggles to re-educate veterans who were denied under old criteria.

"A lot of our veterans don't know this stuff," she said. "It's a constant battle to keep up."

Zach Kyle can be reached at 542-6746. Comment on this story on Post Talk at www.post register.com/posttalk/.