Disabled veterans endure agonizing wait for federal benefits
The Valley News-Dispatch
TARENTUM, Pa. — Dale Fatchet of Brackenridge was shot twice and wounded by a hand grenade while serving in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
Although one of the bullets pierced a knee, it wasn’t until he retired in 2008 from the Postal Service that he had knee replacement surgery. Prior to the operation, he had received full disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“They reduced my disability because I got a new knee,” said Fatchet, 64, who was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor during his service in 1968 and 1969.
“One minute they tell you you’re 100 percent disabled, and then once I got out (of the H. John Heinz III Progressive Care Center in Aspinwall), they didn’t even call me in for a physical — they automatically reduced my benefits.
“I’ve been in appeal for three years.”
As a service officer for the Tarentum VFW, Fatchet knows all too well the long waits veterans have when they apply for or appeal disability benefits.
Service officers help veterans gather the required paperwork and file a compensation claim with the Veterans Benefits Administration in Pittsburgh.
Veterans who file disability claims at the Pittsburgh VA Regional Office wait an average of 10 months for a decision, a nationwide study found.
That’s more than a 40 percent increase over the past 15 months in the number of days veterans waited after filing a claim, according to the study by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative reporting organization.
Those who file an appeal have an even longer wait — about 3½ years — the study found. That’s a 28 percent increase in the past year.
“I think the system is overwhelmed,” said Matt Zamosky, director of the Westmoreland County Department of Veterans Affairs, which helps vets complete claims and send them to the appropriate VA office. “We’ve had two wars — with Afghanistan lasting in excess of 11 years — and they’re also sending more Guardsmen and Reservists than in years past, so you have those, too.”
Disability claims have risen nearly 50 percent since 2008, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The federal government provides between $127 for 10 percent disabled veterans with no dependents and $2,924 a month for fully disabled vets with a spouse.
More than 11,000 Pennsylvania veterans are waiting for responses to claims of injury or illness suffered in connection with their service.
Of the 16 Veterans Benefits Administration offices in the northwestern United States, Pittsburgh’s has the sixth slowest response time to initial claims. New York has the longest, at about one year.
The nationwide average is about 8½ months.
Battling the backlog
To combat the backlog, the Veterans Benefits Administration initiated an improvement plan in the 2010 fiscal year, which included hiring more than 3,300 employees and implementing extensive training to improve accuracy and efficiency.
It includes implementing a paperless, digital disability claims system in all 56 VBA regional offices by 2013.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced in September that it had completed more than 1 million compensation claims so far this year and had its most productive claims-processing period in its history in August.
But vets are still waiting too long for a response, it said.
“We have made great strides, but we realize much work remains to be done to better serve veterans,” Undersecretary for Benefits, Allison Hickey said in a news release.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ goal is to process all disability claims within about four months.
Fatchet doubts that will become a reality.
“I can’t see that in my lifetime,” he said, “unless they make a lot of changes.”
Linda Eshenbaugh, a supervisor at the state Veterans of Foreign Wars office in Pittsburgh, said the VA is doing its best.
“VA employees are constantly getting hammered and are getting blamed for this,” said Eshenbaugh, who works a few floors down from the VA’s office in the Federal Building. “But they are trying. … I see them; they work really hard.”
Zamosky agrees that the VA is moving in the right direction.
“I honestly think there is a desire to do better,” he said.
Benefit changes a factor
In addition to two wars, local officials said several other factors have contributed to the backlog of disability claims:
• A recent change that allows a veteran to file a disability claim six months prior to separating from the military. It puts a strain on the system because younger vets are more aware of what benefits they’re entitled to, so they file claims, said Ron Conley, director of Allegheny County’s Office of Veterans Affairs.
• The addition of two new presumptive conditions for Agent Orange exposure pushed other claims to the back burner, Zamosky said, because the VA had to process the claims within a certain time period.
• Younger vets have five years after discharge to file a disability claim. Most soldiers who are injured in combat file a claim, even if they’re not currently experiencing problems, because otherwise they won’t get compensation later, Fatchet said.
‘A waiting game’
The backlog is particularly detrimental for older veterans who want to enter a nursing home, Conley said. The vets cannot apply for the benefit early in anticipation that they may need the care, he said.
“Some of them pass away before the case is adjudicated,” Conley said. “If they die while the case is being handled by the VA, then there is no compensation (even for their spouse).”
While Fatchet awaits the government’s decision on his appeal, he’s living on what remains of his disability benefits and a “small pension” from the Postal Service.
“I’m fortunate enough that if I need money I can go out and do some things to survive,” he said. “Not a lot, but some. It’s a hardship, sure.
“It’s a waiting game, and I know that because I’m familiar with it.”