AUGUSTA, Ga. — David McRay has a baseball cap about him being retired Army on display in the backseat window of his 1981 Chevrolet Corvette that reads, “I’ve survived damn near everything.”
For the 64-year-old Aiken veteran, that saying sums up the past four decades of his life.
Since serving in South Korea and the Panama Canal as a military police officer from 1969 to 1973, he has suffered two strokes, needed a right knee replacement and developed an incurable skin rash and rectal tear that has compromised his quality of life.
He fought the Department of Veterans Affairs for 40 years to get total disability, and on Dec. 1, 2012, he finally received approval for $154,314 in past-due benefits and $3,309 in monthly payments to take care of all living costs.
“They denied me on endless appeals, but I never gave up and perfected my claim,” McRay said. “I was persistent.”
McRay’s struggles are not uncommon within the VA health care system, but his success is.
One year after a backlog of pending disability compensation claims peaked at more than 611,000 in March 2013, the VA has reduced that number by about 44 percent to 344,000 claims and decreased the time veterans wait on average for a decision by 119 days compared with this time last year.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned Friday, said in a news release that since establishing the goal in 2010 of processing all claims within 125 days, his department has transformed the decades-old, manual paper claim approach into a state-of-the-art electronic process to reduce processing time and input errors.
He added that the VA has also increased productivity through enhanced training, streamlined business processes and other initiatives such as mandating overtime and prioritizing the oldest claims, allowing VA’s 56 regional benefits offices to exceed monthly production records four times in fiscal year 2013.
The department’s national “claim-level” accuracy rate, determined by dividing the number of cases that are error-free by total caseload, is currently 91 percent – an 8 percent improvement since 2011.
“No Veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits. Through a combination of transformation initiatives and the hard work of our employees, we are making significant progress toward our goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015,” Shinseki said in an April statement. “We still have more work to do, and no one is more committed than our Veterans Benefits Administration employees, over half of whom are veterans themselves.”
Though Shinseki said the VA strives to eventually achieve an accuracy goal of 98 percent, McRay said the department got his claim wrong since 1973 and he has at least 100 pages of evidence to prove it.
Since 2005, the Army veteran has accumulated a file of 50 personal letters and statements, 13 VA forms, 20 medical treatment records, and 13 responses and four appeals on his case.
That includes documents from the Phoenix and Augusta VA medical centers and support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Before 2005, McRay said he also collected documents from VA offices in South Carolina, Florida and Texas, and support from Sen. Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., who died in 2003.
“It seems like my case was going in a circle,” McRay said of his initial application. “Because of the bureaucracy, it takes so long. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
VA award decisions show McRay was first granted individual un-employability of $2,376 on June 1, 2002. Six months later, he was approved for cost-of-living payments of $2,408.
It was not until he retained Thomas O’Brien, an attorney at the medical reimbursement law firm Feiler and Associates in Marietta, Ga., that he said VA claims processors began “knocking on the door,” to get him his full benefits and $1,500 in clothing allowance.
Now, McRay gets 60 percent disability for anal fissure, 30 percent for his right knee replacement, and 10 percent for skin care.
“The system itself can be maddening at times,” said O’Brien, who has been an accredited VA attorney since 2010 and practiced disability for the past decade. “It’s a lengthy, time-consuming process and the wait is obviously the worst part.”
O’Brien strongly recommended veterans and their families read VA’s schedule for rating disabilities and relate their case to the law, which divides disability requirements into 15 areas of the body, using evidence generated mostly from medical records.
“The sooner the veteran can begin to establish the nexus between those conditions and their medical records, the clearer their case becomes in an earlier stage,” he said.
O’Brien encouraged veterans to chase and submit their own medical records and histories as early as possible. He said in Georgia seeking copies of medical records, except on some mental disabilities, is free if someone is applying for a medical disability program.
McRay said his case is living proof O’Brien’s advice works.
“The VA was paying me at their pace,” McRay said. “Now, they’re paying me at my pace.”