Despite backlogs, VA disability claims processors get bonuses

Mary Shinn/News21 - Sean Meade was an Army National Guard soldier who was deployed to Iraq during 2006 and 2007. He filed a disability claim in 2008 for back problems and post-traumatic stress disorder. After his PTSD claim was denied, he appealed in 2009 and is still waiting for a response.

“They knew it was coming, and they knew it was going to get worse,” Selnick said. “I think the current leadership, Allison Hickey, they do the same thing to her.”

‘Nothing’s been fixed’

(Jessica Wilde/ News 21 ) - U.S. Army veteran Jerral Hancock drove over an IED in Iraq in 2007. Just 21, he lost his arm and the use of both legs, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But his injuries have changed more than just his own life. His mother and stepfather take care of him full time, and his two children, 9 and 6, struggle with their new life.
  • (Jessica Wilde/ News 21 ) - U.S. Army veteran Jerral Hancock drove over an IED in Iraq in 2007. Just 21, he lost his arm and the use of both legs, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But his injuries have changed more than just his own life. His mother and stepfather take care of him full time, and his two children, 9 and 6, struggle with their new life.
  • (Kelsey Hightower/ /News 21 ) - At the Healing Horse Therapy Center in Florida, Army veteran Jessie de Leon copes with the aftermath of military sexual trauma she experienced while in the service.

(Jessica Wilde/ News 21 ) - U.S. Army veteran Jerral Hancock drove over an IED in Iraq in 2007. Just 21, he lost his arm and the use of both legs, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But his injuries have changed more than just his own life. His mother and stepfather take care of him full time, and his two children, 9 and 6, struggle with their new life.

An investigative report looks at handling of VA disability claims

“Back Home: The Challenges Facing Post-9/11 Veterans . . .was produced by News21.

In addition to a mounting pile of claims filed by the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, claims processors struggle with understaffing, an incomplete software system and paper claims that must be shipped around the country in boxes and sorted in mailrooms and that are sometimes forgotten in file cabinets.

The VA has for years tried to alleviate the load on overwhelmed offices by shipping backlogged claims around the country to other offices. Hickey ordered this “brokering” of old claims as a way for some offices to meet her deadlines.

According to internal documents, the VA has shuffled more than 50,000 claims among regional offices since January, including 16,000 in June. But workers say the practice is unfair to local veterans filing claims when their local office has to shoulder the load for poorly managed offices.

Workers in Milwaukee received more than 5,000 old claims from Houston and Los Angeles beginning June 11. Sioux Falls received 2,600 claims from St. Louis, Houston and Portland, Ore. Meanwhile, Reno completed just more than 1,000 old claims after shipping off 4,500 claims in its inventory to offices in Louisville, Sioux Falls and elsewhere.

“We’re looking like we’re making progress . . . but in ways that aren’t sustainable,” said one claims processor, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. “We’re not actually doing anything to fix problems that are actually causing the backlog. . . . At some point, that overtime’s got to end and you can’t continue to broker out work, and what happens at that point? Nothing’s been fixed, and the same problem persists.”

All of these problems come at a critical time for veterans seeking disability compensation.

Stephen Leon served two tours in Afghanistan and won the Army Commendation Medal for valor after a firefight with three suicide bombers outside a gate in Kabul in 2011. The blast from one of their bombs left him with wrist, neck, knee, back and ankle injuries, as well as traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

When he returned home July 2011, he couldn’t get his mind off Afghanistan, the battles and the friends he lost. “You’re used to a life of being at peace, with yourself and your family and . . . when you go over there, all that breaks up,” he said.

Facing financial difficulties and struggling with PTSD, he was forced to move in with his mother. “I couldn’t get a dime for claims, I couldn’t get in touch with anyone, and the ones I could get in touch with, they didn’t want to help me anyway,” he said.

He enlisted the help of an independent advocate, who fought for his claim and connected him with housing and better PTSD treatment. He was rated 70 percent disabled a year ago and now lives in his own apartment in Revere, Mass.

Without the help of an advocate and without the money, Leon said, he is convinced he would be homeless or dead.

Shinn was a Women & Philanthropy fellow for News21 this summer. Hannah Winston contributed to this report.

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