VA backlog frustrates local vet

U.S. veterans continue to struggle with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ current backlog of compensation and pension claims, and some are affected locally.

According to the Veterans Benefits Administration, last week nearly 640,000 claims were pending, including more than 360,000 claims that are backlogged. A backlogged claim is one that has not been processed within the department’s goal timeframe of 125 days.

If a claim is granted, veterans receive monetary benefits.

Claims from Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans make up almost half of the claims made to the VA, although the issue is affecting all generations of veterans.

Veteran Matt Haley of Tiffin served in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps as a military policeman during Operation Desert Storm in the late 1980s and is fighting to get compensation from the VA.

Haley filed a disability claim in November 2011 for back injuries he sustained while in the military. Records indicate he had surgery to hold his spinal cord in place following the injury, yet his claim was denied by the VA, stating his injury occurred prior to service.

Haley also said he had documentation from his primary care provider saying the injury did not occur before service.

The denial also stated that he had been sent to the Cleveland Clinic, although no documentation was provided by the VA or by Haley to that effect.

He said his records were supposed to be reviewed, but he received documentation stating his records were not reviewed before the claim was denied.

Haley filed an appeal to his claim in December 2013. The appeal is being reviewed, but due to a backlog of claims, those who do not need a high level of care are getting pushed back, Haley said.

Documentation from the VA considers him disabled, yet his compensation and pension claim was not approved. Because his claim was denied but he is considered disabled, Haley has no income.

“If they actually considered me disabled, then why didn’t they approve my compensation and pension?” he said.

Haley said the lack of income also affects the amount of care he and his wife Patsy can give their disabled son, Michael.

Now, applicants must meet 80 to 100 percent of the VA’s disability or financial criteria, Haley said.

Due to his son’s income from Social Security, Haley does not meet the financial criteria and cannot apply for more assistance.

He said he also tried to file for Social Security disability, but his application has been held up.

The issue is affecting veterans nationally. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, President Barack Obama proposed a $163.9 billion budget for the department.

In the budget proposal for 2015, elimination of the claims backlog is a priority. The budget provides enough funding to implement the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Transformation Plan in 2015. The plan is intended to reduce the disability claims backlog and process claims quicker and with more accuracy.

The budget includes a 6.5 percent increase from 2014, with the increase intended to be used to expand access to health care and other benefits, eliminate the disability claims backlog and end homelessness among Veterans.

The budget also is to include $95.6 billion in discretionary spending, which would be used for mandatory programs, such as disability compensation and pensions.

Haley said the Seneca County Veterans Service Commission has helped where it could and assisted with appointments, but he would like more assistance with crises such as the one he is experiencing.

Executive Director Mac McAuliffe said many of the issues veterans face stem from the backlog, along with the amount of rules and regulations the national VA must follow to grant claims. He also said hiring more people to complete the claims would not help, as it usually takes up to three years to properly train someone to grant a claim properly.

McAuliffe said the best way to speed up the process was to approve claims faster.

He also said the VA compensates veterans for the residual effects of their injuries (how it affects them in the long-term), not for the specific injuries. Because of this, the longer a veteran waits to file his or her claim, the harder it is to get approved.

The Seneca County Veterans Service Commission does not adjudicate the claims, but workers do their best to push them through, McAuliffe said.

He also said the appeal process can take up to three years.

“No matter who the vet is or their claim, we’ll do what we can to help,” he said.

Haley has spoken to other veterans in the same situation. In some cases, veterans must pay for surgeries that were started under the VA and were incomplete at the time the VA changed its policies.

Many veterans needing assistance, including those who are homeless, are getting pushed aside, he said.

“As a veteran, I served my country, who, along with many other vets are now having to dig into our own pockets,” he said. “They’re supposed to promote the welfare of the vets. There are more out there like me that need better coverage, that need help as much as I do.”