by Bill Heltzel
Special to the Courier from PublicSource
PITTSBURGH--For more than two years, former Marine gunnery sergeant Matt Hannan has waited for a ruling on whether he is entitled to disability payments for PTSD.
The 35-year-old New Kensington resident 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.
(Public Source Photo/Martha Rial)
“Everytime I try to get an answer, I get no answer,” he said.
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 data analysis by PublicSource. More than 11,000 veterans have pending claims and the average wait time is nearly 10 months. Nationally, the wait time is eight and a half months, and appeals can add years to the delays.
President Obama pledged in August 2009 to cut the backlog, slash wait times and deliver benefits sooner. 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 benefits backlog and stated that he will 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.”
More and tougher claims
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays veterans $123 to $2,673 a month, tax-free, for injuries and illnesses sustained during military service. Claims can be filed at any time. World War II soldiers and sailors still ask for financial help for newly recognized conditions and old illnesses that have worsened.
Continuing wars, medical research and court decisions have complicated the process.
The number of claims doubled from 2008 to 2012, in part because of severely injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s more, the number of issues per claim has increased in modern wartime as field hospitals save more soldiers. World War II and Korean War veterans have asked for help on about two conditions per claim. Veterans of the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan cite five to six injuries and illnesses per claim.
From the veteran’s point of view, the VA’s procedures can be bewildering. That is especially true for new veterans who are 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 said he is not authorized to speak for the organization and based his comments on his experience and insights. “They need their hands held in dealing with the bureaucracy.”
Parkinson, whose organization is one of several that guides veterans through the process, can spotlight overlooked cases and talk to a VA claims agent in the federal building downtown. “I can tell them that this is a hardship case and he needs the extra $30. It takes five minutes versus five months.”
“There are people worse off than me,” Matt Hannan said to explain why he has stopped asking about his pending claim.
Hannan is rated 80 percent disabled and receives $1,400 a month. He doesn’t know how much more he would receive if the VA ruled favorably on his claim.
He signed up for the Marines in 1995, after graduating from Highlands High School in Natrona Heights.
“I needed to grow up and figure out what I wanted to do. That’s the reason I joined the military. I loved it. I didn’t want to leave.”
In Iraq, his mission was to analyze information about “high value” targets. Occasionally he would go on the raids with the teams who killed or captured the enemy.
He said he has suffered several concussions, before and during military service.
He also accumulated a number of 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. When I can’t feel my feet, I stumble.”
He said he cited post traumatic stress disorder in the same 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.
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. Eventually, he quit calling.
His VA file has no record of claims for PTSD or traumatic brain injury, Pittsburgh spokeswoman Patricia Kopa said.
“I can’t remember who I talked to. 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. Calls are answered by the first available agent in Muskogee, Okla.; Nashville or six other toll-free call centers.
“There is no reason for a veteran to call Pittsburgh,” Stone-Barash said, because call center agents can see the veteran’s records.
Last year he told the VA in Winston-Salem, N.C., that he was moving back to Pennsylvania, but his claims file was not sent to Pittsburgh.
However, after a call from PublicSource, the Pittsburgh VA recently contacted Hannan and said they would look into his claim, even though the North Carolina office said they could not find it. They also asked him whether he knows of other veterans who are waiting for response to their claims.
Ten years ago, Parkinson said, Pittsburgh was one of the best regional offices in the country. It cleared claims so quickly that it took on work from other regions. That changed in 2003. Claims from veterans who lived in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia were assigned to the Pittsburgh office, and now the overseas cases account for almost one-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.
Parkinson thinks the VA did not provide enough staff to handle the extra cases, and the backlog has worsened as experienced agents retire.
Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans, has set a goal of processing all disability claims within 125 days by 2015. 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 thinks it can cut the backlog by going paperless, encouraging veterans to file claims electronically, adding staff and using simpler forms.
Stone-Barash also encourages the use of Veterans Service Officers, the outside advocates who help veterans negotiate the bureaucracy.
Quality of Life
Hannan is quick to point out that the VA has helped him in many ways.
Although claims for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain disorder have not been approved -- and the VA can find no record of his claims -- he said he receives medical treatments for the injuries. He thinks he gets better medical care at the VA hospital in Aspinwall than he got in Winston-Salem.
Thanks to the GI Bill education benefit, he is studying engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, and the VA 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."
Ways for veterans to file disability claims
Veterans who register online can track the progress of their claims and ask questions.
VA Benefits Information and Claims Assistance. There are eight call centers across the country.
The following organizations help veterans submit disability claims. Their offices are in the federal building, downtown Pittsburgh, which also houses the Veterans Benefits Administration.
412-395-6233 American Legion
412-395-6265 American Veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam
412-395-6241 Disabled American Veterans
412-395-6252 Military Order of the Purple Heart
412-395-6254 Paralyzed Veterans of America
412-395-6226 Pennsylvania Adjutant General
412-395-6257 Veterans of Foreign Wars
412-395-6262 West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance
Source: Veterans Administration