Vets Return Home to Battle New Foe: VA Bureaucracy

Story after troubling story appears in news reports across the country. Veterans apply for the disability benefits they were promised in service to their country, only to wait a year or more as huge backlogs at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) delay their requests. If a request for benefits is rejected and appealed, the average wait time balloons to 3.5 years. And to add insult to injury, nearly 74 percent of those appeals in 2012 were either reversed in favor of the vet by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals or sent back because of errors by VA staff.

Given the poor health and age of many vets – 1.7 million World War II vets are still alive while a million Vietnam vets are turning 65 – many die before they or their survivors ever see a penny, according to Returning Vets Return Home to Battle New Foe: VA BureaucracyHome to Battle, an ongoing investigation of the troubled VA by the Center for Investigative Reporting.  “It’s beyond tragic,” said Bonnie Carroll, founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. When a veteran dies without his or her benefits, she said, families face not only the financial burden of medical bills and burial costs, but also emotional distress from the “loss of connection to the military that their loved one served and sacrificed for.”

While the VA has shown progress in reducing the claims backlog (first-time requests pending 125 days or longer), significant problems remain, according to many veterans advocates. Since March 2013, the backlog has been cut from 611,073 to 244,602 claims as of Oct. 4. Yet, the average wait time for a response to a claim has increased from 291 days to 345 days during the same time period. (See real-time Data Dashboard below).

Filing benefit claims can be very confusing, and the process for approval can be wrought with delays, mistakes and lengthy appeals. Veterans can apply in person at VA Regional Offices (VAROs) or at VA medical centers. For faster decisions, veterans should file an electronic Fully Developed Claim (FDC) on eBenefits. Review this document from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which explains in detail the process for filing an electronic claim [PDF]. In addition, veterans are encouraged to ask for assistance from qualified third parties. The Disabled American Veterans (DAV), with offices located throughout the country, will help veterans file benefit claims for free.

When a claim for benefits has been denied, there are four steps to take to appeal the decision. Read them here.

Avoid These Common Errors When Filing a Benefits Claim

Veterans starting the claims process are encouraged to avoid these common mistakes:

  1. Putting off filing a claim – This is one of the biggest mistakes and can cost vets a lot of money. If an award is granted, with a first decision or on appeal, the benefits are paid retroactive to the date of the original claim.
  2. Not listing all symptoms – Trying to identify a condition and neglecting to list all the symptoms on VA disability claims is another mistake. The VA has to follow up on potential conditions causing symptoms. If multiple conditions are diagnosed, a disability rating is given for each one.
  3. Waiting because of age – Don’t let a condition go based on severity or age. If the condition worsens later on, it’s better to apply now because the service connection is already established.
  4. Avoiding mental health claims – The requirements for proving post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have garnered a lot of media attention, making some veterans hesitant to pursue a PTSD claim. But if a service connection can be proven, mental disorders are rated just like physical conditions.
  5. Ignoring a secondary disability – Disabilities that are secondary to a service-connected disability are eligible for benefits. If a service-related injury or illness causes a new disabling condition, a veteran would be entitled to benefits if medical evidence or opinion can establish the connection.

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