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VA challenged on progress in cutting claims backlog

Dec. 10, 2013 - 10:09AM   |  
Complex VA Claims MWM 20131204
Bettye McNutt, widow of a Vietnam veteran who died of cancer linked to Agent Orange exposure, said she has fought VA for survivor benefits for 23 years. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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A team of veterans that spent five years reviewing the disability claims process accuses the Veterans Affairs Department of exaggerating its success in reducing the claims backlog.

Testifying Dec. 4 before a House subcommittee that is reviewing how the VA handles complex claims, Lauren Price noted that VA says it has reduced the claims backlog by 35 percent since March — but charged that some of that progress has been achieved without thoroughly and fairly reviewing applications for benefits.

“The dirty secret is that a disproportionate number of complex claims are still awaiting adjudication or have been closed by awarding the veteran a nominal rating on one or more minor issues,” Price, a medically retired sailor, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s disability assistance and memorial affairs panel.

“VA is irrevocably broken and the only way that all of these issues, which Congress has repeatedly attempted to address, will be fixed is by a forced overhaul,” she said.

Even small things seem to take a long time, she said, noting it took VA a year to process a claim filed by one of the members of Veteran Warriors just to change dependency status from single to married.

Complex claims increase

Price said the majority of Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans filing disability claims have complex claims with more than two or three medical issues. But VA could “close” a claim after deciding just one or two issues and by denying or granting a percentage disability rating that is lower than the claimant may deserve, she said.

VA officials, who have a goal of being accurate on 95 percent of claims, cannot say how many errors might have been made in the 1.2 million claims processed in the past year because such errors often take years to discover through a complicated administrative and judicial appeals process.

However, VA spot checks indicate the accuracy rate in claims over the last 12 months has been 89.4 percent, and has improved to 90.2 percent for the last three months.

Thomas Murphy, VA’s compensation service director, said complicated claims with multiple disabilities go into a special “lane” of more experienced claims workers. Murphy said an average of 7.2 disabilities are cited in each claim, a 31 percent increase since 2011.

Even seemingly simple claims can become complicated. Bettye McNutt of Olive Branch, Miss., said she has spent 23 years seeking VA dependency and indemnity compensation following what she said was the Agent Orange-related death of her Vietnam veteran husband in 1987.

McNutt, 68, said her case has been rife with frequent and multiple mistakes by VA.

'Waiting for me to die'

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

McNutt said her claim, first filed in 1990, has been denied seven times, although three times her appeals reached the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which ruled that VA had made errors on her claim.

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

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

Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., the disability assistance panel chairman, said problems with incorrectly processed claims are “simply unacceptable.”

“Those who manage VA need to ... admit there is a real and very serious problem with the quality of VA adjudications,” he said.

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