Sick veterans wait for Obama’s promise

Disability claims can take years

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It was one of the simplest, most poignant promises Barack Obama made in 2008 in his first campaign for the White House: He would fulfill “a sacred trust with our veterans” by significantly reducing the government’s lengthy backlog of pending claims for disability coverage. The goal: All veterans could get a decision on disability claims within 125 days.

But on this Veterans Day, as Mr. Obama prepares for his second term, the president’s pledge not only remains unfulfilled, it has become a rallying cry for sick veterans, their widows and their advocates, who now wait as long as two years for disability decisions from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Records obtained by the Washington Guardian show that as of Nov. 5, the day before Mr. Obama won re-election, 558,230 of the 820,106 veterans seeking disability coverage had their claims pending for more than the 125-day target. That’s 68.1 percent, or nearly double the 36 percent rate in the summer of 2010.

And there are tens of thousands more cases pending in various forms of appeal, where decisions can take months or years to resolve. For instance, the average time it takes to resolve a case before the Veterans Appeals Board is 883 days, or almost 2½ years.

The reason things have become worse rather than better under Mr. Obama is that the claims workers his administration hired did not keep pace with the crush of demand from Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans or the new coverage areas authorized in 2010 for Vietnam veterans.

“In the last two years, it has gotten far worse than it has ever been,” said Walter J. Tafe, director of the Burlington County Military and Veterans Service in New Jersey, who has helped thousands of veterans or their widows navigate the VA bureaucracy to secure benefits they’re owed.

Mr. Tafe said he sympathizes with the regional VA workers, who work hard but simply don’t have the resources to keep up with increased demand. He added that he seldom, if ever, sees a case, even a simple one, resolved within the 125-day target that the VA set.

“I’m happy if we can get it done in a year. And that’s a simple case. Complicated cases, it can be 18 months or 24 months, easily,” Mr. Tafe said in an interview with the Washington Guardian.

And as Veterans Affairs has tried to speed up work to keep the backlog from growing out of hand, its error rate has soared. The VA inspector general told Congress this summer that it found an error rate on high-risk disability claims of 30 percent — more than double the agency’s goals — meaning, veterans can be approved or denied benefits incorrectly.

An analysis of appeals cases by the Board of Veterans Appeals suggested that error rate could even be higher, at least in contested cases. It grants appeals or remands cases back to the VA about three-quarters of the time, mostly because of mistakes.

Another factor for the delays is the administration’s politically popular decision to approve many more illnesses to be covered under VA disability claims for Vietnam War veterans affected by Agent Orange. But when planning and resources didn’t keep up, the system crumbled under the weight of the new burdens.

“Too many veterans still wait too long. That’s unacceptable,” VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey acknowledged in September.

And so VA has set another goal and strategy. It has redeployed 1,200 employees to work on backlogged claims, increased oversight, significantly increased training of employees and begun a transition from a paper system to a paperless, digital processing system. The workers who underwent training have been able to reduce their error rates, VA said, citing one hopeful sign.

Ms. Hickey says the strategy should be a “lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog.”

“VA’s goal is to process all disability claims within 125 days, at a 98 percent accuracy level, and eliminate the claims backlog in 2015,” the agency said in a statement to the Washington Guardian.

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