VA office excluding veterans from disability program, group says

Troubled Baltimore office remains one of slowest in the U.S.

September 12, 2013|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

A senior official of the American Legion, working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce its disability claims backlog, told Congress her organization had encountered an "obstructionist attitude" in the VA's underperforming Baltimore office.

Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, told a House subcommittee this week that VA officials in Baltimore were "aggressively excluding" Maryland servicemen and -women from a program that was designed to fast-track their claims.

Michael Scheibel, director of the beleaguered Baltimore regional office, acknowledged Thursday that claims for five veterans had been tossed out of the VA's Fully Developed Claims program. But he said their case files were missing necessary documents, the veteran had refused to cooperate, or there was an administrative issue.

The Baltimore office is among the slowest in the nation at processing claims, and has the highest error rate, according to VA data. It takes the Baltimore office six months on average to process a fully developed claim; the national average is four months.

The American Legion, which works with former service members to assemble the often complex paperwork required under the expedited program, chose Baltimore for a site visit and performance review in March.

Jones described the organization's findings in testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.

She cited the case of a veteran who was seeking benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Pentagon at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Jones said the Baltimore office spent more time trying to exclude the veteran from the program than it would have taken to settle the claim.

The veteran helped pull people out of the Pentagon after the attack, Jones said. Although he received a citation for his service that day, she said, the VA claimed "there's no way to prove [he was] actually at work that day."

"With an obstructionist attitude towards veterans' claims like that, no program in the world is going to help right the ship," Jones testified.

Jones told the House subcommittee that the local office was "aggressively" tossing Maryland veterans' claims from the expedited program.

Scheibel said only five of the 44 claims developed by the American Legion were excluded, for reasons that he said included a lack of federal evidence, an administrative problem and the claimant's own refusal to be included in the program.

Since the Legion's visit in March, Scheibel said, the VA has used "an aggressive brokering strategy" to improve local performance.

"This strategy, coupled with the current focus to work claims for veterans who have waited the longest, has resulted in a dramatic reduction in claims pending greater than one year," Scheibel said in a statement.

In the last six months, the Baltimore office reduced the number of pending claims to 8,500 from 19,000, according to the VA. The number of veterans waiting on a decision for more than a year dropped from more than 10,600 to fewer than 3,300, Scheibel said.

The Legion and other service organizations agreed last year to work with the VA to help veterans submit fully developed claims with evidence to support their injuries, such as hospital records and military documents.

Ensuring that the claims have all the necessary documents before they are submitted dramatically decreases the amount of time it takes for the VA to issue a decision on whether to grant disability benefits. When the program was launched last year, fully developed claims were processed about twice as fast as traditional claims.

The Legion provides more than 2,600 accredited representatives nationwide to help veterans submit disability claims to the VA's 56 regional offices. The organization selected eight regional offices to review for performance, including Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Denver.

Jones said the Baltimore office has shown signs of progress since the Legion's visit six months ago.

"We have noticed since then, Baltimore has taken some measures to improve," she said in an interview Thursday. "We're expecting greater things."

After The Baltimore Sun reported in January that the local office was the worst in the country at processing claims, Maryland lawmakers, led by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, demanded the VA dedicate resources to improving its performance.

VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki responded by sending Baltimore employees to training courses, sending in senior staff and deploying a new digital processing system ahead of schedule. The VA also initiated a plan to immediately evaluate and pay the oldest disability claims.

Shinseki has pledged to eliminate the VA's backlog by 2015 and accurately process 98 percent of claims.

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