THE V-A HAS IMPLEMENTED A NEW LAW DESIGNED TO SPEED UP THE APPEALS PROCESS FOR DISABILITY CLAIMS.
VETERANS NOW OFTEN HAVE TO WAIT YEARS FOR A DECISION FOLLOWING AN APPEAL.
KPBS MILITARY REPORTER STEVE WALSH TALKED TO VETERANS WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED THOSE DELAYS, AND WHO ARE HOPEFUL YET SKEPTICAL ABOUT THE CHANGES.
A group of vets gathered an American Legion Post in San Diego to talk about their sometimes frustrating relationship with the VAbenefits system. Sam Flores is the vice commander. After 13 years in the Marine Corps, he was medically retired in 2010 after an IED blast in Afghanistan.
Sam Flores, vice commander, American Legion
"I was in the back of a vehicle and next thing I knew I was outside of a vehicle. Did everybody live? Some. I'm sorry Some. It was pretty drastic."
Six people in the convoy died. Flores is still undergoing surgery. But even an obvious disability case like his can take years to resolve. First, veterans have to prove their disability is tied to their military service. Then, the VA has a complex system to rate how disabled the veteran is. Flores says the VA initially determined the blast left him 10 percent disabled.
"And I thought that was it. Then I spoke to somebody when I came into a post, and they said you should be getting a lot more. I didn't know that that meant. I was just trying to survive."
Flores appealed. But the VA estimates it takes 3 to 7 years for veterans to work their way through the appeals process. Part of the reason for hundreds of thousands of VA benefit appeals claims is the legacy of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the VA is also flooded with new claims from Vietnam.
Rick Bridges was a bomber pilot in Vietnam. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1999, after his wife noticed something while they were on the beach.
Rick Bridges, Navy veteran
"I was out jogging with my wife one day and I fell on the sand. I didn't know what happened. She turned around and said, you have trouble keeping up?"
The VA didn't recognize Parkinson's as a byproduct of exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange until 2010. Bridges is in a wheelchair now. Like a lot of vets, he has to file claims each time his condition gets worse, so that his benefits reflect his new disability level.
Other kinds of claims take years to pursue. MaryJane Fisher was in the Navy from 1980 to 1992. She's seeking disability payments for MST, military sexual trauma. One of her shore duties was to inspect barracks.
"Armed with only a billy club. Rape happened. MST happened. You could report it and it would be ripped out of a log book. And you could prove it and it wouldn't show up in a medical report and things like that occured."
She says they happened to her. Over the years, Fisher says the VA would lose paperwork, including records they had during earlier appeals.
"I'm still fighting it. It's not resolved."
The volume of claims in the system has bogged down the appeals process says Dave McLenachen who runs the VA's Appeals Management Office.
VABENE VA what we did.wav
"Over time our inventory of appeals just kept growing and growing and growing. You just can't keep throwing more resources at it. At some point you've got to revamp the system and that's essentially what we did."
In 2017, Congress passed a law to modernize the VA benefit appeals process. The law requires the VA to decide appeals within 125 days. To meet that goal, the VA has added 605 employees to the 2,100 who review benefit claims.
Casey Davis works with the American Legion to guide vets through the process. He's worried the VA won't make its aggressive targets.
Casey Davis, Veterans Service Officer
"Overall, they're trying to modernize and they waited too long. They're trying to do it in the midst of a war that they didn't expect to drag on to generate hundreds of thousands of more claims."
Even so, the hope is thousands of veterans who are waiting for appeals may finally be close to getting answers.
I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. }