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Columbia VA town hall meeting turns into claims gripe session

The director of the Columbia Regional VA Office, standing in front of a packed room full of disgruntled veterans Thursday night, said her office has improved the processing of disability compensation claims but still needs to get better.

Then veteran after veteran took to the microphone to back up the second part of Leanne Weldin’s contention. They weren’t so sure about the “improved” assessment.

“A lot of veterans are saying the VA is just waiting for us to die or to quit trying” to get claims, said Bruce Wright of Swansea. He complained that national Veterans Affairs claims staffers told him his appeal was in the computer system, but local staffers insist the information isn’t in the system.

Wright’s complaints were typical of the few people given a chance to speak at what was one of the first of dozens of meetings new VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald pledged to stage nationwide at each VA medical center and regional office. Not knowing what kind of a turnout to expect for the scheduled two-hour session, the meeting was planned in a room that held 80 seats. When enough people showed up to fill it twice, the organizers decided to break it into two one-hour meetings.

That meant two rounds of introductions and less time for veterans to speak, but the gist of the complaints was clear. Speakers said claims staffers lied to them, deceived them and didn’t show any compassion for veterans who suffer from conditions related to their service.

Weldin tried to calm the anger and aim the talk to generalities that might help others in the room. When veterans brought up specific claims problems that seemed solvable, Weldin directed them to one of the handful of high level claims workers there to help them.

Here’s a hint to those who go to the other town hall meetings around the country: Arrive early, get to the microphone and you might get attention from people who can cut through the benefits red tape.

Disability and pension claims were the focus of Thursday’s meeting. Weldin said she has no supervision over medical care at the neighboring Dorn VA Medical Center, though some Dorn staff members were on hand to talk with veterans with medical care concerns.

Weldin said a few years ago, there were more than 24,000 pending claims at the Columbia regional office, but now there are only 14,000. Not long ago, there were 7,000 claims that had been pending for more than 125 days, and that had been reduced to 1,100. “And that’s still too many,” she said.

More recently, the VA inspector general found 36 of 89 claims requests it examined at the regional VA office in Columbia in March had processing errors. In most cases, the problems related to not following up quickly when claims payments should have been changed, often resulting in overpayment to veterans but sometimes in underpayments.

Weldin said the inspector general’s staff picked claims categories that historically have the most errors. The overall error rate in the Columbia office is less than 10 percent, she said.

“In the cases that the IG looked at, we need to do better, and we will to better,” Weldin said.

Maurice W. Scott of Columbia scoffed at Weldin’s statement. “I believe you are sincere,” Scott said, “but most of what you’re saying is political rhetoric.”

James Joyner of Gadsden said he has records showing he was in the hospital during active duty with injuries, but every time he files disability claims for the back problems that force him to use a wheelchair they get endlessly appealed.

Joyner was one of the few people who left the meeting with a smile on his face. Weldin put him in touch with a claims expert immediately. After about 20 minutes on the VA computer system, Joyner had a new claim filed and was told it was likely to be approved. He was told he might even be approved for a housing claim.

“It’s been 40 years,” Joyner said of his claims fight. “It’s the people. They’ve been lying so long.”

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