JAMESTOWN, N.C. — Robert Penn is an old Marine with a new weapon against the giant backlog of disability claims that has crippled the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for years.
Penn has a new eBenefits account, which gives him online access to the VA. He can check the status of his disability claim, make a new claim, submit documents, make medical appointments, reorder the prescriptions he takes to help him deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder or apply for vocational, educational and other benefits.
The VA hopes that eBenefits will transform the agency by helping it go paperless and by reducing the number of times each veteran has to come to a VA office for appointments. Launching the online portal, along with hiring additional employees at some offices and mandating overtime to work on old cases, is intended to clear up all claims that have been pending for a year or more and put the VA on track to handle new claims in 125 days or fewer.
eBenefits includes a tutorial to coach veterans on what forms they need to complete and what documents to include to help prove their claims. That’s important, VA workers say, because incomplete claims take much longer to process, especially if veterans are sending supplemental paperwork through the mail.
Penn, 64, is not comfortable with computers, but he went to Vietnam in 1969, so he figures he can go online if that’s what the VA needs him to do.
“I get my daughter to help me,” said Penn, who came to an event Thursday at Guilford Technical Community College, where at least two dozen workers from the VA’s Winston-Salem Regional Office helped veterans enroll in eBenefits and verify their identification so they can begin to use it.
The sign-up event was organized by the office of U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, who spoke to the more than 100 veterans and family members who made the trip. Her office organized a similar event in Jacksonville in June, shortly after the VA rolled out eBenefits.
The government has an obligation to take care of its veterans, Hagan told the group, and has been rightly criticized for the glacial pace at which it has handled requests for medical care and disability compensation for service-related illnesses and injuries.
“Today’s event is about holding up our end of the bargain,” Hagan told the veterans. “You’ve already done yours.”
Two wars feed backlog
The VA backlog accumulated when older vets began making new claims at the same time veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started coming home and seeking help.
It’s a nationwide issue, but problems at the Winston-Salem Regional Office – which processes nearly all claims for the more than 773,000 veterans living in North Carolina – have been widely publicized. A 2012 report by the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General included photos of claim folders piled so high they created an unsafe work environment.
“EBenefits is huge,” said Cheryl J. Rawls, director of the Winston-Salem office. “This is a very strategic tool in beating the backlog down.”
When Rawls became director last year, she said, the average time to process a claim was 250 days, twice what the VA has set as its goal of 125 days by 2015.
One of the first things Rawls did after arriving in Winston-Salem, she said, was ask for help. Last August, she got 25 additional employees to help process the 3,200 to 3,900 rating claims that come through her office each month and to help with those that had been awaiting decisions for two years or more.
Rating claims are requests by veterans to be found partially or fully disabled based on medical or psychological issues related to their military service. VA compensation is based on the severity of their disability, as determined by VA claims processors.
The Winston-Salem office processes initial claims as well as requests for findings of increased disability. About 65 percent are requests for higher disability ratings; a soldier once deemed 30 percent disabled, for example, might request a higher rating – entitling him to greater compensation – as his condition worsens.
If a veteran has numerous claims of injury or illness, such as back pain, a knee injury, PTSD and loss of hearing, each claim must be evaluated separately.
The Winston-Salem office pays out $160 million a month in compensation and pension payments to North Carolina veterans.
Rawls said her office has been able to clear most of the cases that had been waiting two years or more, and now is working on those that have waited 12 months or more. With help from VA claims processors in other states, she expects to have most of those cleared by the end of September, she said.
Vets urged to go online
Penn, who lives in Winston-Salem, was one of those who had been waiting for more than two years before he heard three weeks ago that the VA had increased his disability rating from 70 to 100 percent. Penn has severe PTSD, and has cancer linked to his exposure to Agent Orange while he served in Vietnam with the 3rd Marine Division’s 3rd Medical Battalion in 1969 and 1970.
Penn said he suffered with flashbacks and hallucinations for decades before he finally sought help from the VA a decade ago. He had become increasingly isolated, avoiding people and situations he said could stir memories.
“The quieter and more alone I was, the happier I was,” he said. “All I got is my haunts with me.”
The agency first turned him down when he asked for disability compensation, he said. But he persisted, and eventually was given a 30 percent rating, later increased to 70 percent.
He still attends therapy sessions with other service members, but in the past several years, he said, “It got to the point where I’d look in my rear-view mirror and see dead soldiers looking back at me.”
Penn enrolled in eBenefits because, he said, every time he goes to the VA workers there encourage him to go online.
Once they enroll, many veterans will have to go once to a VA office to show their identification. A week or so later, they can view and add to their files online. The VA will digitize all the records of those who use the system online, so that if a veteran moves to another state, the paper file doesn’t have to follow.
Chris Mears, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Administration in Raleigh, which includes the Division of Veterans Services, said veterans are beginning to use eBenefits.
“It tends to be more of the tech-savvy veterans,” Mears said. “They tend to be the younger ones.”