Daniel Dellinger, American Legion national commander, told Military Times editors on Sept. 18 that the Legion's 'biggest battle seems to be VA, at this point, the backlog of claims and the accuracy of claims.' (Rob Curtis/Staff)
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The 2.4-million-member American Legion has sometimes been accused of being a lap dog to the Veterans Affairs Department, more concerned about losing access than looking out for veterans.
If ever true, those days are gone. Recently, the Legion has:
■Challenged VA on its self-reported error rate in claims. The Legion says its own spot checks at eight regional offices discovered mistakes on up to two-thirds of pending disability claims, not the 9 percent error rate VA is reporting.
■Gotten the attention of one of the most powerful people in Congress, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., after complaining about the poor attitude of VA workers at the Baltimore regional office who appeared more interested in finding reasons to deny compensation than in helping veterans suffering post-traumatic stress related to helping rescue injured people at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
■Issued a 70-page report questioning VA’s progress in supporting female vets after discovering persistent problems with understaffed women’s clinics, rude or disinterested staff, and an overall environment that discourages women from seeking the health care benefits they’ve earned.
At a time of waning membership, the nation’s largest veterans group is striving to show that while it works with VA on many issues, its priority remains the veterans themselves.
Veterans are priority
The Legion encourages new veterans to take advantage of its 2,600 trained experts who can help veterans file claims.
It also sponsors job fairs across the U.S. to help veterans and separating service members find employment and works with states to help veterans get state licenses or credentials for military-learned skills.
Daniel Dellinger, a Vietnam-era Army veteran elected the group’s national commander in August, said he believes in being a strong voice for veterans and helping new veterans.
“Our biggest battle seems to be VA, at this point, the backlog of claims and the accuracy of claims,” Dellinger said Sept. 18 in a meeting with Military Times editors and reporters.
Dellinger said he is skeptical that VA will meet its goal of eliminating its compensation claims backlog by the end of 2015 and bringing the claims accuracy rate to 98 percent.
“We just don’t see that across the board,” he said, noting that the number of pending claims is “coming down, but overall accuracy is only in the 80s.”
Asked if he believes VA would meet the 2015 self-imposed goal for eliminating the current 446,000 backlog of claims older than 125 days, Dellinger said, “No.”
“They have had a good effort in the last six months, but is that enough to get them over the hurdle? Personally, no,” he said.
VA has been telling lawmakers that its performance is improving. In fiscal 2011, VA says it made the correct decision on 83 percent of processed claims.
In fiscal 2013, the accuracy rate climbed to 87.3 percent from Oct. 1 through mid-July and has jumped to 91 percent for the last three months, VA says.
But Verna Jones, an Army veteran who heads the Legion’s national veterans affairs and rehabilitation commission, said visits to eight VA regional offices found a wide disparity in claims accuracy.
There was an error rate of 83.3 percent on reviewed claims in Pittsburgh; 72 percent in Oakland, Calif.; 75 percent in Reno, Nev.; and 58 percent in Baltimore, she said. In Baltimore, the Legion review team encountered “file management issues” with more than 60 percent of the files they viewed, she said. That included loose paperwork that fell out of files when they were picked up or moved.
VA officials, disturbed by the Legion’s challenge to their reported accuracy rates, said the veterans group did not measure a scientifically valid sample to provide a fair comparison.
Congress takes note
But the Legion’s criticism has the attention of Mikulski, the powerful leader of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She wrote to VA on Sept. 16 to give the department 10 days to come up with a plan for an attitude adjustment at the Baltimore regional office, where the Legion complained that employees seem more interested in disqualifying than approving claims.
“We cannot continue to allow the Baltimore office to perform at a level that puts our commitment to veterans in jeopardy,” Mikulski wrote.
The letter is a response to Jones’ Sept. 11 testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “In Baltimore, it often seemed employees spent more time trying to disqualify claims from [the faster fully developed claims process] than to process them, and therefore the program struggled to succeed,” Jones said, referring to claims where a veteran does most of the legwork to collect documents to prove eligibility for benefits.
As an example, Jones cited the case of a veteran who helped remove remains from the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. She did not identify the veteran by name, but said the Legion was helping him file a claim for PTSD.
To support the claim, medical records were provided that show a diagnosis of PTSD, but the Baltimore claims office said it needed more information and removed the claim from the fast-track process, Jones said.
The office wanted proof the veteran was serving at the Pentagon — evidence that Jones said was available in the veteran’s personnel records, including a citation for his service that day and billeting and personnel records.
“Even when federal records were obtained and the veteran was shown assigned to a unit at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, VA continued to try to kick the case out,” Jones said, because the records did not prove the veteran was actually at work that day.