Sandra Reed’s Life Care Planning: Backlog of veteran’s claims hits seniors and young

Claims Backlog of Recent War Veterans Makes News

Multiple news sources recently reported that more than 900,000 disability claims are backlogged at the Veterans Administration. More than 243,000 veterans waited in excess of a year to have claims resolved in 2012.  Retroactive benefits payments to survivors reveal a nasty truth: many veterans are dying before disability decisions arrive.  The reports prompted denunciations from sources as disparate as cable TV commentators, U.S. senators, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and political satirist Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

On the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war last month, representatives of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America carried a petition to Washington signed by more than 30,000 Americans demanding an end to the backlog.  The focus has centered on recent war veterans, but the backlog impacts seniors as well.

Backlog Hits Families of Wars More Distant in Time as Well

The VA fiasco is personal with the Reed family. My father-in-law had a 100 percent disabled classification from injury sustained as World War II veteran. At his death in May last year, his disability check was discontinued but my 92-year-old mother-in-law filed a claim for the benefits available to her as his survivor. Last week it had been 10 months since her claim was filed with no decision. Her savings have rapidly depleted from the round-the-clock care her Alzheimer’s requires.

Hearing the devastating reports, the family braced for months more waiting. Then, miraculously, the letter arrived, announcing approval of benefits beginning April 1.   My mother-in-law’s wait is consistent with the 329 days of delay forced upon the average veteran. Compared with the horror stories of wounded veterans awaiting decisions after more than 22 months, the Reed family is lucky. My mother-in-law wasn’t sitting in pain, awaiting funds for expensive medical procedures or medications so many veterans desperately seek.  Nor did she have minor children needing food, clothing and shelter.

Why the Backlog? 

The answer to the backlog is not completely clear. The VA has been hit with gigantic numbers of claims the last few years.  An NBC news outlet reports that approximately 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seek benefits for war-related injuries. In addition, Vietnam veteran claims increased following governmental expansion of ailments attributed to Agent Orange exposure.

Even though the department has processed more than a million claims since 2010,  critics protest the delays. When the VA has asked for more people and more money, both have been allocated. Yet the drag time persists.

One explanation is the failure of the department to have converted from paper to paperless claims. The 18 of 56 regional offices that have piloted conversion to the digital Veterans Benefits Management System have reduced the average processing time from 250 to 119 days. The agency expects to convert the remaining regional offices to the system this year with the stated goal to eliminate the backlog by 2015.

A Congressional Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs blames some of the delay on poor record-keeping at the Department of Defense (DOD), calling for greater cooperation between the DOD and the VA. When combat related incidents are not adequately documented by a unit, a veteran’s often has difficulty establishing the service related nature of an injury or disability.

What Can Applicants Do?

Surfing the internet reveals dozens of websites that promise to help a veteran through the maze of applying for benefits.  Scratch the surface of these sites and it becomes readily apparent that some exploit a veteran by illegally charging for assistance.  Even legitimate advocacy organizations may provide little assistance beyond providing phone numbers, addresses and help completing forms.  The Eldercare Resource Center, whose mission is to help families with Alzheimer’s and other aging conditions, find financial and care resources, suggests the following:

(1)                    Do it right the first time.  Properly fill out the application, answering thoroughly every question.

(2)                    Do your research.  Know the exact type benefit and amount for which you are applying, the eligibility requirements and why you qualify.

(3)                    Recognize that the VA prioritizes officially.  A terminally ill veteran’s first time claim is prioritized over an appeal for a higher benefit.

(4)                    Recognize that the VA prioritizes un-officially.  Overwhelmed processors are going to choose the less complicated files first. Don’t throw in the kitchen sink and overload the folder with unnecessary documentation.

(5)                    Keep copies of everything.  Lost paperwork causes delays. Be ready to fax or email immediately what is requested.

(6)                    Don’t put all eggs in one basket.  For many veterans, an application for Medicaid may be processed much faster – 45 to 60 days.

(7)                    Don’t put all eggs in two baskets.  Many elderly veterans are eligible for assistance programs other than VA or Medicaid.

(8)                    Know how long you’ll wait.  Plan for a wait of  nine to 12 months to begin receiving assistance.

(9)                    Know that financial help is available.   Elder care loans represent a new area of assistance for the cost of home care of assisted living while the veteran or family waits for benefit approval.

(10)                Who do you know?  Evidence shows that knowing someone in the administration or working with a legitimate veterans benefit consultant may speed up claims.

(11)                Find affordable care.  Differences between costs of care within an area can often vary by 50 percent or more. Use free services to identify the most affordable care in the area.

In addition to the above, seniors should learn how political candidates stand on this issue and use ballot box power to elect those who will seek a solution that assures that the veterans’ claims backlog is eliminated.

Sandra W. Reed is an attorney practicing in Glen Rose.  She is of counsel with the elder law firm of Katten & Benson in Fort Worth.  If you have any questions, you may contact her by phone at 254-797-0211 or by email at swreed2@yahoo.com

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