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Widow wages 23-year battle with VA for survivor benefits

Dec. 3, 2013 - 04:43PM   |  
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A 68-year-old widow who has spent 23 years seeking veterans’ survivor benefits will be a key witness Wednesday at a House hearing focusing on the Veterans Affairs Department’s problems in handling complicated claims.

Bettye B. McNutt of Olive Branch, Miss., will tell the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s disability assistance and memorial affairs panel that her 8,600-day fight for dependency and indemnity compensation following the Agent Orange-related death of her Vietnam veteran husband is the result of frequent and multiple mistakes by VA.

The focus of the hearing is about error rates as high as 66 percent found in disability claims reviewed by the VA Inspector General. The reviews involve cases of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and veterans seeking to be rated as 100 percent disabled.

VA’s Nov. 30 weekly status report on claims processing says it has a 89.4 percent accuracy rate on decisions in the previous 12 months and 90.2 percent in the last three months. The report does not separate out the more complicated claims.

“I have been forced to live in poverty, sometimes without heat and electricity, as a widow raising a son orphaned by the Vietnam War,” McNutt says in her prepared statement to the committee. “I am here seeking justice for the other widows and orphans of our Vietnam War veterans, as I am well aware that there are many like me.”

McNutt will be accompanied by her attorney, Glenn R. Bergmann, who is now handling her claim, and by her son, Brandon.

“When faced with denial, most people give up,” McNutt says. “I think VA knows this. VA can easily grant my claim right now if they reviewed the evidence of record and correctly applies the law. This is not a difficult claim, but VA has made it complex.”

Her husband, Ronnie, was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, she said. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in 1987 and died within five months of his diagnosis.

“He died because of the Vietnam War and his service to our country. On his death bed, just weeks before he died, he told me about how he swam in waters highly contaminated with Agent Orange. He told stories about using discarded Agent Orange barrels as makeshift barbecues,” she says. “There is no doubt in my mind and in my doctor’s professional opinion that the dioxin in Agent Orange killed my Ronnie.”

While she is convinced her husband’s death is service-connected, making her eligible for survivor benefits, the VA is not convinced, at least not to the point of paying her.

McNutt says her claim, first filed in 1990 in Jackson, Miss., might have been lost for 12 years although she kept receiving assurances it was being considered. “I believe VA lost or simply forgot to process my claim until I reminded the agency about it,” she says.

Now, her claim has been denied seven times, although three times her appeals reached the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which said VA had made errors on her claim.

“I feel that VA is waiting for me to die,” she says.

A chronology of her claim provided to the committee counts six significant errors, including one in 2006 when she began receiving a pension she had never applied for.

“I returned the check,” she says.

Her claim is now pending before the Board of Veterans Appeals, an administrative board within VA.

The wife of another veteran who also has problem with claims has filed a written statement with the congressional panel but will not appear at the hearing.

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