Adams, Chris, Young, Alison, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
VA attempts to stonewall benefits probe; shoddy veteran treatment found in records
The admonition from Abraham Lincoln is emblazoned on the wall of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: "...to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.
It is the core promise in our nation's contract with its military men and women. But how well is America serving its disabled veterans?
While the VA pays more than $20 billion a year in disability compensation benefits, as many as 572,000 veterans may be missing out on payments because they are unaware they are eligible or have not applied, our analysis of VA data found for a July 2004 article. In addition, veterans in some states were twice as likely to be on the VA's rolls as those who live elsewhere.
In March 2005, we reported that veterans nationwide are being shortchanged in the claims process, doomed to suffer lengthy delays, wrongful denials and inconsistent rulings. Over the last decade, delays were so extreme that 13,700 veterans died waiting for claims to be resolved. Meanwhile, the VA's network of accredited claims preparers is little more than a patchwork of well-meaning helpers who vary widely in training and expertise.
As we set out to uncover these problems, the VA went to extraordinary lengths to keep its operations secret. In the end, we filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Our legal battles with the VA have been cited in Congress as an example of how federal agencies can thwart the public's legitimate access to documents, then exploit a recent Supreme Court ruling to potentially avoid paying legal fees when a requestor is forced to sue.
From our early reporting, we knew that veterans' advocates worried that claims delays took so long that veterans died in the process. But how often did that happen? Likewise, advocates complained that vets in some states got more money, on average, than those in others. The state-by-state rankings were easily accessible in VA's annual reports, but nobody had ever determined why payments varied so widely.
A series of VA databases, most obtained only after protracted negotiations and our lawsuit, helped address the questions.
One database of pending claims allowed us to determine how long veterans waited to have their initial claims decided. It was far longer than the VA itself said was acceptable.
The real delays, however, were in the appeals process. By analyzing a database of more than 300,000 veterans' appeals and comparing the date a case was entered into the system to the date it was decided, we determined that average delays were nearly three years - and were virtually unchanged in the previous decade, despite VA's pledges to reduce them.
Beyond that, most cases were merely returned to the VA's regional office for another hearing. So, by going through multiple appeals, many veterans actually wait 10 or more years for a decision.
We analyzed the issue of regional office variation from several angles, including delays, decision errors, and veteran satisfaction with the process. All varied widely.
The VA's primary claims database helped show why veterans in some states were far more likely to have big checks than those in others. That database included information on each of the 2.5 million veterans collecting monthly disability checks. Most important: It detailed a code for each veteran's disability (such as for "post-traumatic stress disorder") and the VA's "rating" for the disability (ratings go from 0 to 100; the higher the rating, the bigger the check).
What we found was that the more subjective the disability - the prime example being the mental disorder PTSD - the wider the swing. So, veterans in some states were three times as likely to have the highest rating for PTSD as those in others.
Given the VA's massive bureaucracy and confusing claims rules, we wanted to know how much help veterans received during the claims process. …