Veterans tell VA, Open front door to disability claims

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As the number of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan grows, vets and members of Congress are stepping up demands that the long wait many endure before disability claims are accepted must be drastically shortened.

On Sept. 22, New York Democrats Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. John Hall joined with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to announce introduction of a Senate equivalent to the Disability Claims Modernization Act (HR 5892), passed by the House in July. The bill would revise the disability rating system, update the way the VA decides claims and extend key benefits to veterans’ families.

Citing HR 5892 as among several positive developments in Congress, Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), said between 600,000 and 800,000 vets are now waiting an average of more than six months for the VA to decide about their disability benefits. Even those figures are distorted by the VA’s practice of mixing statistics for the quicker pension claims with those for disability, he said.

“If the veteran files a claim for a mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the decision usually takes about a year,” Sullivan, a former VA staffer, said. If a veteran has to appeal because the VA denied the claim, awarded an incorrect amount or set a wrong effective date, an appeal can take three or four more years, he added.

VCS and Veterans United for Truth are co-plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of wounded Iraq veterans whose claims were rejected by the VA. While calling the VA’s performance “troubling,” a judge ruled in July that overhauling the system was beyond the court’s jurisdiction. The two veterans’ groups have appealed.

In a fact sheet updated earlier this month, VCS said nearly 1,718,000 soldiers have been deployed to the Iraq or Afghanistan war zones, and about half are now eligible for VA services. Nearly 350,000 veterans from the two wars have been treated at VA hospitals, including nearly 150,000 diagnosed with mental health problems.

Sullivan emphasized that military doctors and medical personnel “are doing a superb job. They are saving more soldiers than have ever been saved in combat. The VA doctors and medical personnel really care and are doing a heroic job. The president and Congress need to act immediately to make sure veterans’ caregivers are recognized and supported in their heroic efforts.

“The VA’s biggest problem is the front door. VCS wants the VA to stop turning away suicidal patients, to confirm disability benefits and provide care “faster and without all the red tape,” Sullivan said, citing several widely publicized cases in which suicidal Iraq war veterans were refused medical care in an emergency, with fatal consequences.

After the lawsuit was filed, the VA set up a suicide prevention hotline, which has received tens of thousands of calls, with the VA reporting some 1,600 “rescues,” he said.

Sullivan places responsibility for the current problems squarely at the White House doorstep. “Responsibility lies with the president of the United States,” he said. “He started the Iraq war and he had no plan to care for the casualties.”

Another organization fighting for prompt, effective care for veterans is Disabled American Veterans. DAV spokesperson Thom Wilborn pointed out that vets must go through a two-tier system to get their disability status recognized: first through the military — sometimes spending as long as two or three years in a medical holding company before being discharged, and then through the VA.

Wilborn told of his conversation with a young soldier who was among those routing Saddam Hussein from his underground hideout. The young man, who suffers from PTSD, has been waiting for months to get both local and Pentagon approval for his combat infantryman’s badge — needed to prove his status as a combat veteran so his claim can be decided.

Emphasizing that his organization is “non-political” and doesn’t endorse candidates, Wilborn said DAV’s rating of the two major presidential candidates’ Senate performance showed Barack Obama with an 80 percent rating on disabled vets’ issues, compared to just 20 percent for John McCain.

mbechtel @pww.org