'They forgot about us': Nearly 1M veterans wait on VA to process disability claims

News-DemocratMay 18, 2013 

More than 900,000 wounded veterans are waiting an average of nine months apiece -- in many cases far longer -- for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to process their disability claims.

Wounded U.S. Army veteran Mike Rujawitz, 54, is one of them.

And after a wait of more than eight years on a claim connected to a traumatic brain injury he suffered while in the Army, Rujawitz said he's about ready to give up.

The government doesn't take care of its wounded soldiers, said Rujawitz, who lives in a rented trailer off East Main Street in Belleville with his wife and daughter.

"They say they'll take care of you, but they won't," he said. "They forgot about us."

In November 1981, Rujawitz was serving with an Army infantry unit in Germany. During a Cold War crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union, Rujawitz found himself helping to guard a convoy of trucks hauling nuclear missiles near the border with the then-nation of Czechoslovakia.

Something happened. Rujawitz thinks Russian troops on the other side of the nearby Czech border fired a rocket at his convoy. The VA, however, contends that Rujawitz was involved in a moving vehicle accident.

Either way, an explosion threw Rujawitz out of the truck and into the air, knocking him out. When he came to, he found himself in a military hospital receiving treatment for a severe head injury.

His physicians had cut open his skull for emergency surgery, the reminders of which are the deep scar down the center of his cranium and four metal plates that bind his skull together.

Plagued by migraine headaches, dizziness, nausea and mood swings, Rujawitz has tried to keep various jobs during the last three years, but without success.

"I just couldn't hack it, I guess," he said. "I'd start doing something and then I didn't know what I was doing."

The long delays faced by Rujawitz and other veterans in getting their disability claims reviewed and approved by the VA have finally caught the attention of federal lawmakers.

At least three separate bills have been introduced in the U.S. House since January to force the VA to speed up its claim approval process.

One of these measures is being sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, the 12th U.S. House District's freshman congressman and a member of the House's Armed Services Committee.

In a nutshell, Enyart's bill would limit the time for the VA could handle a claim. The bill, called "The Veterans Backlog Reduction Act," would award veterans a provisional benefit if they've waited at least 125 days on their claim. If a veteran's claim is later rejected, he or she would not have to pay back the original benefits issued unless a fraudulent claim had been filed, according to the proposal.

Enyart, a former two-star general who retired as commander of the Illinois National Guard last year, said what sets his proposal apart from the others already introduced "is the accountability aspect of it. It gives them an end date. You have to give them that financial disincentive, I guess, to get them to do their work."

The agency's disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries during their military service. They range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month for a single veteran.

Enyart blamed the backlog of VA claims on poor compatibility between Defense Department and VA computers.

"They don't communicate. So that's been a problem," Enyart said. "The ball has been getting dropped between DoD and the VA."

Other reasons cited for the mounting backlog of pending claims include the following:

* Tens of thousands of World War II and Korean War veterans -- men in their 80s -- who, with the help of family members, are filing first-time claims before they die of old age.

* Tens of thousands of Vietnam era veterans who, newly retired, have the time and resources to pursue first-time claims or to contest rejected claims.

* Hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who've been repeatedly educated about their eligibility to file claims on a wide range of injuries, from suspected traumatic brain injury, to post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike earlier generations, these veterans are not shy about seeking what the VA owes them and have been urged by family members to do so.

* The decisions by Congress and the VA itself to expand the number and type of disability claims that qualify for monthly disability payments.

This last reason is cited repeatedly as a major factor in the growing backlog of claims.

VA records show there has been a 200 percent increase during the last 10 years in original claims containing eight or more medical issues.

From 2009 to 2012, not only did the number of claims received increase, but the number of issues inside these claims increased from 2.5 million to more than 4 million, according to a VA statement.

"This 50 percent growth in medical issues -- which is a truer measure of the time it takes to complete a claim -- is a major factor that is having an impact on production, the growth in inventory and backlog, and the timeliness of claims processing," according to a recent VA report.

Andrew Edwards, a national service officer with Disabled American Veterans, in St. Louis, said that in an earlier era, "usually you'd see claims with three or four issues. Now they're filing anywhere from 15 to 30 issues."

Provisional approval

The VA responded to the complaints and congressional scrutiny with an array of new initiatives.

In April, the VA announced a plan to give provisional approval to its oldest claims based on the evidence already on file.

The VA would start to focus on claims that have been pending for more than a year, a large portion of all the claims in the agency's huge backlog. The VA pledged to make provisional decisions on those claims, enabling vets to start collecting benefits far sooner.

"We don't want veterans to have to wait any longer than necessary to get decisions on the benefits they've earned and deserve," Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said in April during a conference call with reporters.

One of the VA's most ambitious efforts to speed up its claim processing was its announcement last week that more than 10,000 VA workers who process disability claims must work at least 20 hours overtime each month, between late May and September.

The VA aims to handle nearly 600,000 pending claims that are "backlogged," or still pending after more than four months in the processing pipeline.

In addition, the VA launched a paperless, digital information system already implemented in 20 regional offices, with the goal of all 56 regional offices putting the system in place by the end of 2013.

The new system aims to provide "a lasting solution that will transform how we operate and ensure we meet the secretary's goal -- claim completion in 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by the end of 2015," according to a statement from VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz, in Washington, D.C.

"The plan to fundamentally transform how VA processes claims is in motion and on track to succeed," according to Lutz's statement.

A 2011 nationwide analysis of VA records by the McClatchy Newspapers' Washington, D.C., bureau showed that the Illinois ZIP code prefixes that begins with 622 -- a region that ranges south from Collinsville, across all of St. Clair County and northern Monroe County -- manifest one of the nation's highest ratios of seriously disabled veterans from Afghanistan and the Iraq-era wars.

The metro-east's wounded warriors are receiving disability payments for a wide gamut of injuries, from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, to limb amputations and brain injuries, these records show.

There are 209 Iraq-era war veterans who are disabled 50 percent and above per 100,000 residents in the metro-east. That's five times the rate for the rest of Illinois and more than twice the national average ratio, according to McClatchy's analysis of VA records. McClatchy is the parent company of the Belleville News-Democrat.

Enyart said he does not know when is his bill is scheduled to get a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Meanwhile, he continues to recruit legislative sponsors for his measure. Enyart predicted that it will eventually pass into law, even if it means being merged into other pieces of legislation attempting the same goals of streamlining and speeding up the claims process.

Too late

No matter what happens with Enyart's bill, it will be too late to do any good for Willie Fox.

Fox served with the Army in Vietnam more than 45 years ago. That's where he came in contact with Agent Orange, a herbicide the U.S. military used extensively to destroy the thick forests that hid enemy soldiers.

Fox, a self-employed electrician, died last year after waiting nine years on a claim he filed in 2003 with the VA for health problems associated with exposure to Agent Orange. His symptoms included severe respiratory problems and heart ailments. He was 67.

Fox, a longtime East St. Louis resident, spent his last days feeling deeply disappointed by the VA's lack of response to his disability claim, according to his widow, Ernestine Fox.

"They wouldn't turn him down but they would say for years, 'We're working on it,'" she said.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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