Veterans' Benefit? VA, Buried under Claims, Says It's Finally Digging Out

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Stories of US veterans streaming back from America's wars and endeavoring to gamely navigate the Veterans Administration claims process have created a grim legend of wounded warriors waiting four years before the VA, buried under a mountain of paperwork, can even begin the process of looking into their benefits claims.

In fact, according to an August 2012 report from the VA's Inspector General, the stacks of files grew so dense at the Winston- Salem, N.C., regional VA office that they "appeared to have the potential to compromise the [structural] integrity of the building."

According to the report, some 37,000 claims were in chaotic stacks, leading to a predictable "increased risk of loss or misfiling" and also exceeding the load-bearing capacity of the building by 39 pounds per square foot.

In the wake of this and other reports over the years - and the ensuing outcry from lawmakers and veterans advocacy groups - the VA has been laboring to bring down its backlog of claims, which VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised to end by 2015.

And in recent months, the agency has reported some success.

Efforts to speed up care for vets have included bringing high technology to the VA, in the form of a much-heralded recent move to get rid of paper files and computerize the claims process.

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Earlier this year, the VA also established its own Center for Innovation, which is exploring products like mobile apps for vets and has reached out to entrepreneurs such as Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, in an effort to, for example, improve customer service.

Still, making a dent in the backlog of claims at the VA is no easy task. The department currently reports more than 800,000 petitions for which veterans are awaiting an answer.

More than half a million of them, roughly 525,000, are "backlogged," meaning, by the definition Mr. Shinseki has put in place, that they have been pending for more than 125 days.

The hold-up in many cases has been complicated by the surge of veterans returning home with wounds from America's decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past four years alone, nearly 1 million veterans were added to the VA's compensation rolls.

"Veterans submitting claims today claim many more medical conditions," says VA spokesman Randy Noller. This is "largely because of multiple deployments and the fact they are 10 times as likely to survive today's wars - but with multiple medical issues for a lifetime."

Then there was the decision made during Shinseki's tenure to "right some old wrongs," Mr. Noller adds.

This includes making "the long overdue decision" to recognize for the first time what in military parlance is known as the "presumption of service connection" for diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, Gulf War illness, and what the VA has determined to be Agent Orange-related conditions, including Parkinson's disease.

This in turn has led to another million new claims, Mr. Noller says.

Other factors complicate the claims process, too, highlighted by a widely circulated exchange last week between Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois and a contractor who claimed a disability benefit for an injury he sustained in a military preparatory school - a case that grabbed the attention of veterans groups.

Disabled veterans who own small businesses receive preference when they bid for a government contracts.

The contractor, Braulio Castillo, president and CEO of Strong Castle Inc., in Washington, D.C., currently receives monthly checks for an ankle injury, which he says he sustained while playing football or orienteering. He was given a 30 percent disability rating by the VA, citing "the crosses that I bear in my service to our great country," Representative Duckworth noted as she read Mr. Castillo's letter aloud during the hearing.

Castillo did not return calls or e-mails for comment on this story.

A visibly angry Duckworth, a veteran Army pilot and double amputee whose helicopter was shot down over Iraq - and who was subsequently given a 20 percent disability rating by the VA - took Castillo to task for taking advantage of the system. …

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