- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

Leading Democrats like to hold up the Veterans Benefits Administration as an example of how well government can provide health care. But veterans who deal with the complex federal bureaucracy have invented an unhappy refrain to describe the VBA: “Deny, deny until you die.”

VBA, the branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs that dispenses aid and assistance to veterans and their families, is simply overwhelmed. It reported on Monday that there are 481,751 pending claims, some of which will take more than a year to be processed.

Among those flooding the VBA’s facilities with claims are retirement-aged Vietnam veterans and elderly World War II veterans, middle-aged Gulf War veterans, and younger Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. All of these groups are applying in larger numbers because of the weak economy, said Larry Scott, the founder of the advocacy group VAwatchdog.org.

“You’re getting a lot of people who came out of Vietnam and said, ‘Excuse me, screw it.’ They put their uniform away and didn’t want anything to do with the VA. Now they’re getting older and know if their boots were on the ground [in Vietnam], they were presumably exposed to Agent Orange,” Mr. Scott said, referring to the common name for a chemical defoliant widely used in Vietnam that can cause cancer and other diseases.

“There is also great stress on the system because people who qualified for private health insurance are now unemployed, or underemployed and their employer doesn’t provide health care. So you’ve got all these people crawling out and saying, ‘I didn’t know I could get this, but let me go see now.’”

Three government investigations released in September paint a picture of an agency that simply can’t keep up with the demand:

• An audit released Sept. 23 by the inspector general of Veterans Affairs found that 3 percent of all claims took more than a year for the VBA to process.

• A separate audit released Sept. 28, this one investigating VBA’s control of veterans’ claims folders, said that 437,000 claims - more than 10 percent of the 4.2 million on file - had been lost or misplaced.

• In a third report, released Sept. 30, the inspector general said employees at VA regional offices had shredded claims forms containing information needed to obtain benefits. Although the inspector general was unable to determine how many claims had been wrongly destroyed, the investigation found claims placed in shred bins, waiting to be destroyed, at 41 VBA locations nationwide.

Efforts to speak with someone at the VA about these matters on the record were not fruitful. The only person the VA would make available was a high-level technology officer at the VA, and that interview was canceled twice at the last minute.

The VA did provide information to The Washington Times attributable to a “VA spokesman,” saying it hired an additional 4,200 people over the past three years to help reduce claims-processing times and is testing a number of pilot programs to streamline the process.

The VA also has put new controls in place to prevent workers from shredding needed documents; two staffers and a facility records management officer must now review a document before it can be shredded.

But any improvement will come too late to help Greg Hasler, who filed a disability claim with Veterans Affairs in May 2008 after being diagnosed with a severe form of internal cancer. His oncologist recognized it as a kind of cancer commonly caused by radiation and said it likely was caused by Mr. Hasler’s service in the early 1960s in Operation Dominic at Christmas Island, a Pacific Ocean atoll where many nuclear tests were conducted.

Mr. Hasler died from his fast-spreading cancer on Feb. 4, 2009, at age 66. It wasn’t until July that the VBA notified his wife that it was examining the claim; the agency told her in September - seven months after her husband’s death - that his illness was service-connected and that she was entitled to benefits.

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