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Despite progress in backlog, thousands of Florida's veterans still wait for benefits

While his mortgage, electric bill and child support payments fell months behind, James Pendleton, a 57-year-old U.S. Army veteran from North Lauderdale, waited years for disability compensation benefits.

Some 37,000 veterans in Florida are like Pendleton, waiting for a letter from the Veterans Benefits Administration and wondering how they will pay bills in the meantime.

While the number of pending disability claims has decreased significantly since 2013, when the nation became outraged by the number of backlogged claims, the regional benefits office in Florida still had the highest number of pending claims in the country in early August. Of those claims, 59.7 percent are backlogged — meaning the claims have been pending for more than 125 days — which is above the national average of 48.7 percent.

“There was nothing I could do which is why I began to write,” said Pendleton, who sent a series of letters to politicians and government administrators.

“If I lose my house, where will I live? If I can’t keep the lights on or water on, how will I survive?” he wrote in a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs in March 2013.

The VBA says it is working to ensure that veterans like Pendleton won’t have to spend years worrying about whether they will qualify for benefits and, if so, when.

Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for benefits at the VBA, told a congressional committee on veterans’ affairs in July that her organization has made “tremendous progress” in reducing the disability claims backlog. She also reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to eliminating the backlog by 2015.

Nationally, she said, the number of backlogged disability claims, which are given for service-connected injuries, has decreased by over 55 percent from the peak of 611,000 in March of 2013 to 275,000 in July of 2014.

The number of backlogged claims has dropped in Florida too. In spring 2013, the number was 34,609 and by August this year, it was approximately 22,134.

But Hickey’s testimony was met with skepticism by some, including Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs; Linda Halliday, an assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, and veterans’ advocacy organizations, who question the accuracy of claims processing.

Miller said, in a statement from his press office, that he doesn’t trust numbers released by the VA.

“One would be foolish to take any VA statistic with anything other than an enormous grain of salt,” Miller said.

Though the VBA reports that it processes claims with approximately 90 percent accuracy, veterans groups say the administration makes more mistakes than it reports.

“We’ve yet to find a regional office whose numbers match our numbers,” said Zack Hearn, deputy director for claims at the American Legion, an organization focused on veteran service.

Halliday, who also testified before the congressional committee in July, agreed that accuracy in claims processing has been a problem for the VA. She told the committee that the VBA has paid $85 million in improper benefits payments since January of 2012 for 100 percent disability evaluations.

Additionally, she said that appeals have been growing at an “alarming rate.”

Employees at the VA office in St. Petersburg, Florida’s regional benefit office, are working to process all claims including appeals, said Suzanne Nunziata, assistant director/interim public affairs officer at the regional office. She said the office hasn’t sacrificed accuracy in order to process more claims.

“We are encouraged by the backlog reduction,” Nunziata said. “But we are certainly not satisfied. We know that there’s more to do.”

As the overtaxed VA sifts through mountains of claims and allegations of inaccuracy, some veterans around the country have adopted the motto: “Delay, deny, wait till I die.”

Many veterans have a story similar to Pendleton’s, who teetered on the edge of homelessness while he applied and reapplied for benefits. Pendleton, a former corrections officer in Broward, said his back pain was caused by carrying heavy artillery in the service from 1977 to 1980.

His back pain made it difficult — and then impossible — to run. Eventually, he began to stumble and became unable to work.

After two years of struggling to afford his home and support his children, Pendleton starting receiving checks for his initial claim of 20 percent disability, which amounts to $258 a month. It was a welcome financial boost, but not enough to be self-sufficient, he said.

He reapplied with the help of a lawyer and is now receiving 40 percent disability for tinnitus and vertigo. Pendleton continues to apply for more disability based on his back pain, which he said is his worst ailment.

“You feel useless. You feel hopeless. You have tried it all,” Pendleton said about the process for applying and waiting for benefits.

For homeless veterans, the obstacles to getting benefits are even greater. In 2010, Florida had 10.2 percent of all homeless veterans in the country, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some, like Michael Cedrone, 41, from Aventura, have been laid off during their struggles to overcome military-related issues. Cedrone, a Marine who served two terms during the Gulf War era, was juggling appointments and medication for depression when he lost his job. Cedrone said he started taking out loans and pawning his items in order to pay rent.

If not for Operation Sacred Trust, which is funded by the VA’s Supportive Services for Veterans Families Program, Cedrone said he would have had no place to live.

“From the day that I filed a claim to today, I’m always fighting,” Cedrone said. “You have to fight for everything.”

Cedrone is now receiving 10 percent disability for tinnitus and 50 percent for major depression.

Cedrone’s situation is common in Miami, said Ryan Foley, a legal fellow at the University of Miami Health Rights Clinic. The same veterans awaiting claims are often moving from shelter to shelter and living on food stamps, he said. Foley said about one fourth of his clients have no mailing address, which causes them to miss important letters about their claims.

Nunziata, from the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office, said that it is sometimes difficult to identify if a claim is from a homeless veteran, but that once the agency learns a veteran is homeless, the claim is expedited.

Seth Eisenberg, voluntary program manager for Operation Sacred Trust, who teaches relationship-building skills to veterans, thinks that the VA is doing its best with a difficult situation.

“When you have a system that serves millions of people you can find anything,” Eisenberg said “You can find countless examples of great successes … you’re also going to find numbers of breakdowns.”

There is also hope among veterans groups that better days are ahead for the VA. Following the VA hospital scandal, which revealed long wait times at VA hospitals, Congress passed legislation that provides $16.3 billion in additional funding to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans groups are optimistic that the new VA secretary, Robert McDonald, will help end the benefits backlog in addition to fixing the broken hospital system.

“We’re excited to work with the new secretary,” said Jackie Maffucci, the research director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “There’s some new energy to really think of some solutions and to work towards those solutions.”

But until the backlog is eliminated, veterans like Pendleton are left waiting.

“Day after day veterans across the country watch their lives unravel even though they follow the protocols step by step, seeking assistance they so desperately need and deserve,” Pendleton wrote in another letter, this time in September 2013 to U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. “Personally, I am sick and tired of fighting the Veterans Regional Offices for benefits that I am entitled to.”

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