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Veterans’ benefits entangled in red tape

- 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.

Mrs. Hasler said she was able to get the claim opened only after seeking help from advocates at VAwatchdog.org, who exposed her problems with the VBA to the public as "the Case of the Atomic Widow."

Other veterans, including former Vietnam helicopter pilot Jim Massey, are still fighting for benefits. Mr. Massey has retained legal counsel at his own expense after being spurned by the system. He can barely walk because of his back problems but was awarded a disability rating of only 20 percent, meaning the VA thinks he still has 80 percent of his normal function.

Mr. Massey is appealing the ruling, but the process is time-consuming and requires frequent appointments at far-away military hospitals. His wife, Georgia, must schedule time off work in order to drive her husband to the appointments since he cannot drive himself.

Such problems are not uncommon, said Jim Strickland, one of the two men who run VAwatchdog.org. "It is routine for the majority of people to have some sort of major glitch with filing their claim," he said.

Mr. Massey, whose military awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and numerous Air Medals, first hurt his back while serving as a door gunner in Vietnam when his helicopter crashed from engine failure in November 1966.

He reinjured his back twice during his 20-year Army career, once in 1972 lifting a heavy roll-up door of a helicopter hangar and more severely in 1984 while extracting a fellow soldier from concertina wire during a field exercise.

"Helicopters have vibrations, beats," said Mr. Massey, who served as a helicopter pilot and test pilot for 13 years. "It vibrates your head and just beats your neck and back continuously up and down and side to side."

Since 2003, Mr. Massey has undergone 10 surgeries, five of which have been on his lower back. Because of the "horror stories" he had heard about the VA application process, he said, he delayed filing for service-connected disability benefits until June 2007.

He was given a disability rating of just 20 percent even though he has extreme difficulty walking and requires strong pain medication, making it hard for him to seek a job. "I'm basically housebound," Mr. Massey said.

He and his wife are now appealing, a process requiring tremendous time and effort. Mrs. Massey, who keeps meticulous records, said she took her husband to 69 doctor appointments in 2008 alone.

"One time, they just measured the scars on my back," Mr. Massey said, after traveling 240 miles to be evaluated by the VA.

Mr. Massey was notified by mail about when and where to appear next and was not given any choices. Paperwork from his VA medical center warned: "Failure to report for any scheduled examination could have a detrimental effect on the outcome of your claim."

In August, Mr. Massey received a mind-boggling letter from the VA.

"We propose to rate you as incompetent for VA purposes," it said. "Evidence from your VA psychiatric examination dated February 6, 2008, revealed you stated that your short-term memory is quite poor, and your wife often makes you a list that you at times will even forget to read or follow through on.

"You said that you lose objects regularly, including telephone, camera, keys, and stated this has been going on for the past six to seven years. The examiner stated on the basis of this evaluation, you appeared minimally to partially capable of managing your VA benefits."

Mr. Massey worries that such a ruling would mean someone else would be appointed to manage his personal finances. "Who doesn't misplace items?" he asked.

Mr. Strickland has advised the Masseys to seek legal counsel, which they have done. "All I am asking for is fair compensation for the injuries my body and mind received during my 20 years of service in the defense of our country," Mr. Massey said.

Drew Early, a veterans lawyer based in Decatur, Ga., who is working with the Masseys, said it is not unusual to be threatened with a finding of incompetency.

"Any time they see anything that looks like it could be dementia or Alzheimer's, that rings a bell in their head, and they will automatically default to a finding of incompetency, which in and of itself can be harming," he said.

"The problem is that this is a federal agency making a determination that has many ramifications beyond the scope of the VA. They can extend it to say you can't own a gun. 'We are a federal agency and we are declaring you incompetent,' and that has baggage throughout [an individual's] life and engagement with the government."

Such findings are difficult for a veteran to appeal.

"An enemy combatant in Guantanamo Bay has more rights than does a veteran," Mr. Early said. "And who has the time? These poor veterans don't have time to sit and wait and confront the nation's second-largest bureaucracy. They are in need of help, but this bureaucratic fortress stands in their way."

Mr. Massey hopes eventually to be rated as 100 percent disabled, but regrets having to work so hard to get the rating to which he feels entitled.

Mrs. Hasler, the "atomic widow," is similarly upset that she had to get help from the men at VAwatchdog.org to receive compensation from the military that her husband served before dying prematurely from that service.

She said it "unnerved" her having to share the details of her husband's untimely death with other people, but "the one thing he made me promise was that I would not give up on the claim" that could provide her with payments on which to live.

"I'm a relatively private person, and the average person doesn't know where to go, and there is certainly no handbook from the VA to guide you," she said. "I don't think they give a rip."