825,000 veterans await disability payments, inquiry finds
Veteran Matt Hannan at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Mr. Hannan served with the Marines for 15 years and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
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For more than two years, a former Marine gunnery sergeant from New Kensington has waited for a ruling on whether he is entitled to disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Matt Hannan, 35, said he filed the claim with the Veterans Benefits Administration before he was medically discharged in 2010, following 15 years of service and two tours of duty in Iraq.
"Every time I try to get an answer, I get no answer," he said.
Mr. Hannan is one of nearly 825,000 veterans nationwide stymied by a bureaucratic backlog that has delayed payments for war-related disabilities, according to a national analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Pittsburgh is one of the slowest regional offices in the country, ranking 44th out of 58 in early September, according to further analysis by PublicSource. More than 11,000 claims were pending and the average wait was nearly 10 months. Nationally, the wait time is more than eight months, and appeals can add years to the delays.
President Barack Obama pledged in August 2009 to cut the backlog, and his administration has increased spending on staff and operations. Still, the wait times lengthen.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has criticized the Obama administration for failure to fix the backlog and stated that he would be an advocate for veterans.
"We're not happy where we are right now," said Jennifer Stone-Barash, Pittsburgh regional director for the Veterans Benefits Administration. "No one at the VA is. We understand what we're doing now is not meeting the needs of veterans across the country."
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays veterans $123 to $2,673 a month, tax-free, for injuries and illnesses sustained in military service.
The number of claims doubled from 2008 to 2012, in part because of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of issues per claim also has increased, as field hospitals save more soldiers, research links more illnesses to warfare and courts order more-inclusive coverage.
VA procedures can be bewildering to men and women transitioning from a warrior culture to civilian life as they look for housing, apply for jobs and enroll in college classes.
"They get a 30-page document and a month to respond," said Dave Parkinson, a veterans service officer for Paralyzed Veterans of America. He was not authorized to speak for PVA and based his comments on his experience. "They need their hands held in dealing with the bureaucracy."
Mr. Parkinson's organization is one of several that guide veterans through the process. He tries to spotlight overlooked cases. "I can tell them that this is a hardship case and he needs the extra $30. It takes five minutes vs. five months."
"There are people worse off than me," Mr. Hannan said to explain why he has stopped asking about his pending claims.
He is rated 80 percent disabled and receives $1,400 a month.
Mr. Hannan signed up for the Marines in 1995, after graduating from Highlands High School in Natrona Heights.
His mission in Iraq was to analyze information about "high value" targets. Occasionally he went on raids with the teams that used his analysis to kill or capture the enemy.
He said he has suffered several concussions, before and during military service. He also accumulated stress injuries to his back, legs and arms, the primary reason for his medical discharge in 2010.
"I can't walk long distances and I can't do hills," he said. "When I can't feel my feet, I stumble."
He said he cited PTSD in his original claim for back and leg injuries, while stationed in North Carolina. Later, after tests showed damage that could explain his cluster headaches, he added traumatic brain injury.
He said the VA granted his basic claim but never ruled on PTSD or traumatic brain injury. When he asked, he recalled, he was told the claims were pending.
There is no record of a claim for PTSD or traumatic brain injury in Mr. Hannan's file, which is still in Winston-Salem, N.C., Pittsburgh spokeswoman Patricia Kopa said.
"I can't remember who I talked to," Mr. Hannan said. "It seems like it's a different person every time."
They probably were different people every time.
Claims agents seldom talk with the veterans. In fact, the Pittsburgh telephone number is not listed, and calls are answered by the first available agent in eight toll-free call centers.
However, after a call from PublicSource, the Pittsburgh VA recently contacted Mr. Hannan and said the agency would look into his claim, even though the North Carolina office said it could not find it. The VA also asked him whether he knew of other veterans waiting for responses to their claims.
Ten years ago, Mr. Parkinson said, the Pittsburgh office cleared claims so quickly that it took on work from other regions. That changed in 2003, when claims from veterans who live in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia were assigned to Pittsburgh. Now they account for almost a third of the workload.
Pittsburgh has 113 claims agents serving more than 364,000 veterans in Western and Central Pennsylvania, the West Virginia Panhandle and overseas.
Mr. Parkinson said he believes the VA did not provide enough staff to handle the extra cases.
Eric Shinseki, the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, has set a goal by 2015 of processing all disability claims within 125 days. A tour of the VA office in Pittsburgh revealed the magnitude of the task. Filing cabinets fill every niche, and boxes of files are stacked on top of the cabinets.
The VA strategy is to streamline the process by going paperless, encouraging veterans to file claims electronically, adding staff and using simpler forms.
Mr. Hannan is quick to point out that the VA has helped him in many ways.
Although his PTSD and traumatic brain disorder claims have not been approved -- and the VA can find no record of them -- he said he receives medical treatments for the injuries. He said the VA hospital in Aspinwall gives him better treatment than he got in Winston-Salem.
Thanks to the GI Bill education benefit, he studies engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, and the VA has arranged an internship at the Human Engineering Research Lab.
Even with a small extra payment, he said, "I feel the VA could make the quality of my life better."
First Published September 21, 2012 12:00 am