Backlog of veterans’ benefits appeals growing bigger

Chauncey Robinson only served six months in the Army, but he’s been fighting for 16 years to get his
Chauncey Robinson of Albany shows off copies of government documents Friday. Robinson, who served a short stint in the Army, has been fighting for 16 years to get disability benefits.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Chauncey Robinson of Albany shows off copies of government documents Friday. Robinson, who served a short stint in the Army, has been fighting for 16 years to get disability benefits.

Chauncey Robinson only served six months in the Army, but he’s been fighting for 16 years to get his veteran’s disability benefits.

Robinson, of Albany, a Bible study teacher who ministers to veterans at Harvest Church, said he’s stuck in a bureaucratic maze and says his problems were exacerbated when the Department of Veterans Affairs lost all his medical and personnel records.

He said it’s an example of the gross mishandling of veterans claims by the VA, and despite his requests for help from New York’s senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton and Congressman Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, he is still waiting a decision on his appeal.

Case backlog

He’s not alone. It’s estimated there are 600,000 to 800,000 unresolved claims and appeals with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to veterans’ advocates.

“We have claims that have been pending for a decade, two decades and some that date back more than 50 years. We have appeals from World War II,” said David E. Autry, a spokesman for the Disabled American Veterans in Washington D.C., which represents veterans and advocates and helps them obtain their benefits.

“It’s a three-pronged problem,” said Autry. “There are not enough people to do the job expeditiously, they may or may not be well trained to do the job right, and there is inadequate oversight on how they do it.”

The result, said Autry, is that thousands of claims get bounced around from agency to agency and no decisions are made.

One man’s case

Robinson, 48, had a brief stint in the Army, serving from January to July 1992, according to records from Veteran Affairs. He enlisted in the National Guard so he could become a mechanic.

His military career was cut short, he said, when his drill sergeant threw him out of bed while he was in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., during basic training. Robinson said he was asleep in his bunk when his drill sergeant turned over his bunk. “I hit my head on the locker and went to the clinic and they told me my heart was racing.”

He was honorably discharged on medical grounds in July 1992 and filed for VA benefits for cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, which he said was related to his military service and the incident with his drill sergeant. His disability claim was denied and the Board of Veterans Appeals determined that Robinson’s in-service cardiovascular symptoms had nothing to do with his military service.

But Robinson appealed the ruling, saying he had suffered cardiovascular problems because of his military service.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in 2005 ruled that Robinson’s claims folder was lost by the VA and also ruled that his files would have to be complete so Robinson would get a fair hearing. His case was referred to the Department of Veterans Affairs Regional office in New York.

VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda said she could not say what the status of Robinson’s claim is in the New York regional office.

Treatment issues

Robinson said it’s about the larger problem of how veterans are treated.

“There is gross mishandling and inadequate treatment of veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs and their failure to honor their commitment to vets. I have been fighting the VA to recognize my claim for 16 years. They don’t have my files.”

Robinson said that he doesn’t even know where his VA claims, files and medical records are today. “In New York they say the files are in Washington, D.C. In Washington, D.C., they say the files are in New York.”

Robinson said he began receiving about $2,600 a month in VA benefits in 1995 after he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Robinson said on Friday the assault by the drill sergeant led to his post traumatic stress disorder and to his heart problems. He said that prior to the incident, he never had any heart problems.

He is still appealing the initial decision that denied him benefits for cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

“I am totally permanently disabled. I want an upgrade and compensation,” said Robinson.

Evaluations filed by his physicians in federal court say he has panic disorder and a related heart condition. A psychiatric evaluation filed in federal court said delays by the VA makes Robinson’s conditions worse.

But such delays are common. According to congressional testimony as of Jan. 31, 2008, the Veterans Benefits Administration’s pending inventory of disability claims was 397,077.

Situation worsening

In 2007 the VA received a total of 838,141 claims, compared to 578,773 in 2000, an increase of 45 percent.

The VA could not say exactly how many unresolved disputed claims there are, but estimates the backlog of disability claims is approximately 400,000; 85,000 of these have been pending for more than 180 days.

In 2007, the average decision on veteran disability compensation claims took 183 days, about six months, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs 2007 Performance and Accountability Report.

Appealing a denial can last years — more than four years on average for a veteran to adjudicate a claim and take it all the way to the Board of Veterans Appeals.

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are supposed to be receiving priority treatment in their claims when they return and the claims of those with a severe disability are supposed to be given greater priority with the aim of adjudication.

Autry said there are many reasons for the backlog of claims and much of it boils down to the VA not doing the job right the first time. Most of the problems are because the claims not being fully developed, he said.

The Veterans Administration is supposed to work with the veteran to make sure all records and medical records are in order. But it doesn’t always happen as it should, said Autry. When this occurs the veteran can appeal it and it can go to the Board of Veterans Appeals, where the board will take a look at the claim.

Around in circles

But very often, it is sent back to the regional office, which says it needs further development, according to Autry. “It goes back to the same people who may, or may not have done an adequate job in the first place and it goes back in the cue. Evidence gets lost and the claims get misplaced, which further delays the claim,” be said.

When administrative laws are exhausted, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, will provide judicial review. Yet often, instead of deciding the claim itself, the court sends it back to the Board of Veterans Appeals.

That’s what happened with Robinson’s appeal.

For now he continues his battle and has reams of court documents and copies of the dozens of letters he has written and the responses he has received from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In a series of letters from July 2008, his attorney, Virginia A. Giarard Brady, continued to try to determine the status of Robinson’s claims for benefits. And in support of his claim, his physician at the Stratton Veterans Administration provided paperwork that said he suffered from hypertension from 1994 to the present.

“I am very much dissatisfied with the way my claim has been handled. It has caused much stress in my life, which isn’t good at all for my cardiovascular problems. I have always and still suffer chest pains and shortness of breath to go along with fluctuating blood pressure problems,” Robinson said.

Yet it seems he is caught in the churn. A June 3 letter from the Department of Affairs to Robinson said it had “received your application for benefits. It is our sincere desire to decide your case promptly. However as we have a great number of claims, action on yours may be delayed. We are now in the process of deciding whether additional evidence or information is needed.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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