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Tampa Bay Veterans Wage Fight With VA For Benefits

HOWARD ALTMAN The Tampa Tribune
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Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — As a Green Beret, Scott Neil was one of the first U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 9/11. For years, he fought insurgents there and in Iraq, suffering injuries to his brain and spine along the way.

In July 2010, his service to the nation was ending, but a new battle began.

This one was with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Almost 1,000 days ago, he began the process with the VA to receive benefits for his traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic neck and back pain and hearing loss. It was part of a joint review with the Army, which was trying to determine if Neil was still fit to serve.

The St. Petersburg Veterans Affairs Regional Office picked up the case more than a year ago, in January 2012, but it took until last week, after a phone call from the Tribune, to get a disability compensation rating, a formula that determines the amount of benefits a veteran can receive.

Neil is not the only veteran who’s had to wait months or even years for a ruling by the St. Petersburg regional office, the nation’s busiest compensation processing division. More than 50,000 claims are pending there, with nearly 35,000 outstanding for more than 125 days, which is considered by the VA to be backlogged.

Neil said he was happy after learning from the Tribune that he was awarded service-connected compensation at a combined rate of 90 percent. He’s frustrated, though, that it took, by his count, almost 1,000 days.

“That is almost the same amount of time I had in combat,” he said.

The VA’s St. Petersburg regional office acknowledges it did not act on Neil’s case until a call from the Tribune.

“We reviewed his claim based on the media inquiry to determine the status of his claim and what needed to be done,” St. Petersburg regional office spokeswoman Angela Wilson wrote in an email to the Tribune. “At that point, we completed the claim. The review of the claim helped us to determine that we could make a decision, and so we did.”

Despite the problems, Wilson says a smaller percentage of claims are backlogged at the St. Petersburg regional office than the national average and that the average waiting time is shorter, too: 251.7 days at the St. Petersburg office compared with 280.4 days nationally.

But the St. Petersburg office has the second-highest backlog of outstanding claims in the country, according to Rep. Kathy Castor. She calls the number of claims waiting for processing”outrageous.”

The problem is so pervasive that the House Committee on Veterans Affairs will explore the backlog during a full committee hearing Wednesday. The hearing will focus on the VA’s plans for employee training, accountability and workload management, and how it will help the department chip away at the mountain of backlogs.

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Neil had deployed into combat four times by 2004. A member of the 5th Special Forces Group, he had survived multiple firefights and close-quarter battles. In fall of 2004, a Humvee in which he was traveling hit an improvised explosive device, pushing the vehicle off the road at 60 mph.

The combined concussive injuries affected Neil’s memory and cognitive skills, gave him numbness in his hands and affected his hearing and eyesight. Bouncing around in vehicles caused degenerative disk disease. The years of dodging death, killing and seeing people killed contributed to his post-traumatic stress disorder.

The injuries prevented Neil from doing his job in the field, so he eventually was assigned as the senior enlisted advisor to the director of the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Interagency Task Force at MacDill Air Force Base.

His wounds, seen and unseen, also prevented Neil from being promoted. In July 2010, he underwent what is called a “VA/DOD Joint Disability Evaluation Board.” The board determines whether a service member should be retained or forced to retire because of medical issues.

Forced medical-related retirement would set the clock ticking on seeking VA benefits.

Two months later, under the military’s up-or-out policy, Neil was forced to retire because he couldn’t get promoted to sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank.

The VA said that on July 15, 2010, the Department of Defense evaluated Neil for possible medical release from active duty. As a result, Neil was “dis-enrolled” from the disability evaluation program, according to St. Petersburg regional office spokeswoman Wilson.

Neil remained on active duty until Dec. 31, 2010, and the VA St. Petersburg regional office did not receive a disability compensation claim from Neil until Jan. 13, 2012.

The VA said Neil’s medical disability procedures were stopped when he retired. Neil said he was told the joint program with the VA would continue. Checking every three months or so with both the VA and the Socom Care Coalition, he said he was told his benefits claim was “on track.”

Neil said that in January 2012, he was told to approach the VA’s St. Petersburg regional office and restart the process. This time, with help from a representative from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he filled out the same paperwork. In November 2012, he underwent another medical examination, this time at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa.

Fast forward almost a year.

In a letter dated Feb. 4, 2013, officials at the St. Petersburg regional office told Neil they were working on his claim but needed more paperwork about scars to his face and head.

“All of this is to get an initial rating — not a denial and not a request for a higher percentage — just a rating,” he said.

That all changed with the VA’s March 8 decision.

“It’s not like I won the lottery,” Neil said. “Most people think the VA is only a place to get free medicine and a disability check. But what was so frustrating after 1,000 days is that it almost created a dependency. I couldn’t get the types of jobs and training I wanted without a rating that would give me access to those programs.”

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Neil’s wait for a decision dragged on for years, but he doesn’t argue with the ruling he eventually received.For veterans who receive a ruling they disagree with, the wait is even longer.

After an initial decision, a veteran can ask for a second ruling, which comes from the same regional office. If still not satisfied, a veteran can appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, a Washington, D.C.-based part of the VA and the last avenue for appeals within the department. If still not satisfied, the veteran can appeal that ruling to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which is part of the federal court system.

The most recent statistics available, for fiscal year 2011, show the Board of Veterans’ Appeals ruled on almost 50,000 cases, taking about 2½ years to issue decisions.

The board approved almost 14,000 appeals that year and denied slightly less than 12,000. In almost half of the cases, the board sent the case back to the issuing office for more information such as updated physical exams and tests.

The board says its workload likely will only increase, estimating that some 66,000 veterans would appeal their cases in fiscal year 2012.

Harry Arnett, a Vietnam War veteran now living in Spring Hill, is one of those caught up in the appeal process.

Arnett, 67, put in a claim for his benefits four years ago. He is in the process of deciding whether to appeal his most recent rejection from the board. If he goes forward, he will still have at least another year or more before a decision is reached.

That is time he may not have.

Arnett served in the Army from 1965 to 1969, leaving as a corporal. He was in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967.

Six years ago, he was diagnosed with Polycythemia vera, a blood disorder that creates an over-production of platelets and causes the blood to thicken. Arnett says he thinks the disease is a result of his exposure in Vietnam to Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used in Southeast Asia later linked to a host of health problems.

Arnett began his long journey through the VA benefits claim system in March 2009. Six months later, the St. Petersburg regional office denied his initial claim.

Told it would be beneficial if he worked with an advocate, Arnett reached out to Leo Dougherty, an accredited claims agent, who helped him navigate the complex VA claims process.

The system, says Doughtery, “is overwhelming,” with numerous steps and 18 months or longer between a denial and an appeal.

“It is a slap in the face to veterans and those serving today,” says Dougherty.

It took a year for the Board of Veterans Appeals to deny Arnett’s claim, according to Steve Keller, acting chairman of the board. The board takes an average of 240 days to render a decision, he said.

Keller said it took two years for the St. Petersburg regional office to move Arnett’s case to the board.

Arnett’s case wound up bouncing back and forth between St. Petersburg and Washington, according Wilson, the St. Petersburg regional office spokeswoman. In May 2010, the office prepared the appeal in two weeks, then sent it to the board, which required a new medical exam. After another 19 months, the St. Petersburg office notified Arnett that they had denied his claim and the appeal was returned to the board Jan. 4, 2012.

Ralph Bratch, a St. Petersburg attorney, specializes in VA appeals. His firm is considering whether to appeal Arnett’s latest rejection.

A major in the Army Reserve serving with the Judge Advocate General Corps, Bratch says his firm, Bosley and Bratch, expects to have about 1,000 appeals cases by the summer.

Bratch said he expects the appeals process to become even longer. The VA, he said, is under a mandate to handle new claims, “essentially pulling resources away from the appeals process.”

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The St. Petersburg regional office “and the VA as a whole has much room for improvement in reducing the backlog and improving the timeliness of claims processing,” says Wilson, the spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg regional office.

The office, which handles 6 percent of all claims, is so busy because Florida has 1.6 million veterans, the second-highest number in the nation.

Nationwide, the VA’s 56 regional offices processed a “record-breaking” 1 million claims a year for the past three fiscal years, according to Wilson.

There has been increased demand after more than 10 years of war and veterans returning with severe, complex injuries, the VA says. It also is coping with expanded access to benefits and care for conditions related to Agent Orange, Gulf War Illness and combat PTSD.

Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, cited high turnover and a lack of accountability among some poorly performing employees and management as reasons for the backlog.

“This is especially problematic at the St. Petersburg facility, which is one of the nation’s busiest regional offices and serves one of the country’s largest veterans populations,” he said, explaining why his committee is investigating the problem.

In December, Rep. Castor sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki requesting “an immediate plan of action” to reduce the backlog at the St. Petersburg regional office. Castor, in an interview with the Tribune, said people who work at that office have told her the backlog is in part due to farming out document copying services.

The VA responded to Castor’s letter in January, saying it has improved training, operating procedures and data collection throughout the system.

The VA’s “Transformation Plan” is “designed to eliminate the claims backlog and achieve our goal of processing all claims within 125 days at a 98 percent quality level in 2015.”

Castor says she isn’t satisfied with the response. She says that from 2007 to 2010, Congress provided a 60 percent increase in VA discretionary funding, adding almost $23 billion for veterans’ health care and services.

“There is an incredible inertia in the bureaucracy,” she said. “We seem to be going backward.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, cited high turnover and a lack of accountability among some poorly performing employees and management as reasons for the backlog.

“This is especially problematic at the St. Petersburg facility, which is one of the nation’s busiest regional offices and serves one of the country’s largest veterans populations,” he said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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