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VA benefits approved for Pa. woman whose case languished

PHILADELPHIA — Mike Pearson has long considered the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs office a "black hole" where forms vanished and his mother's benefits request, filed nearly two years ago, went dark.

But four days after Novella Pearson's story was published in The Inquirer, light appeared.

The claim was processed and approved last week, a department spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday. Pearson will now get $1,130 monthly from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The spokeswoman, Ramona Joyce, could not say if the claim was expedited after the July 27 story or if the publicity made a difference.

Mike Pearson thinks it did.

"It means relief for my mother and the ability to have some assurance that she has stability in a living arrangement," said Pearson, of Philadelphia.

He said the money would go to the East Norriton nursing home where his 88-year-old mother lives, easing the "sting" of her dementia by helping her stay where she is comfortable.

When news broke last month that boxes of old mail had been found at the city's VA Regional Office in Germantown, veterans and their families across the region wondered if the seemingly disregarded documents explained why their cases had languished.

VA officials have said the mail found at the facility, which is under investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General, was from completed claims. But the department has acknowledged that document management can be improved and that claims in general are taking too long to process.

As of Monday morning, the VA backlog of claims pending at least 125 days was about 275,000. In Philadelphia, 61 percent of compensation claims are in that group, as are 15 percent of pension claims, which the city's center processes for more than a dozen states, according to the department.

Novella Pearson's claim was received in October 2012, then denied in March 2014 when the department said Pearson didn't send necessary information. (Pearson said the documents were lost by the department.)

The claim was reopened soon after, but little progress was made until The Inquirer contacted the department about the case. In late June, a VA representative contacted Pearson and asked him to submit forms he said he had already sent.

He said he just laughed — "You can't keep the good fight up if you're buried in negativity," he said Tuesday — and e-mailed copies of the forms from 2012.

The claim was approved a few days later.

Pearson said that he has no doubt that it would still be languishing if his mother — like many other claimants — did not have advocates.

"I'd still be writing letters to the VA wondering when this was going to end," he said.

Pearson has since moved on to another pursuit. He is applying for his own military benefit.

Pearson, an entrepreneur who founded a food service packaging company in Yeadon, received a bronze star in the Gulf war.

After the article about his mother was published, an acquaintance who knew of his service reached out to tell him he might be eligible for Pennsylvania's Persian Gulf Conflict Veterans Bonus.

The fund, approved by voters in 2006, provides about $75 per month of service during the conflict, up to $525, and an additional $5,000 if a veteran was held as a POW, died, or sustained an injury that led to death.

Pearson said the department informed him that his mother might also be eligible for other benefits. He said he thinks he was so focused on her pension claim that he overlooked those options and plans to explore them soon.

His last encounter with Veterans Affairs has not deterred him.

"I may be better prepared for this than most," he said. "I've been beaten up by bureaucracy before. And you get to a point where you're tough."

tnadolny@phillynews.com

 

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