Veterans Disability Claims Delayed by Overwhelmed Agency

Many wounded veterans struggle as they wait for a decision from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department on their disability claims. Families also suffer when their loved one cannot provide financial support, because of a service-connected disability.

For an Illinois family, the years of waiting and fighting for disability benefits have left their credit in ruins. The family dipped into saving, borrowed from family members and stopped paying certain debts while the bills for medical tests and treatment mounted. The family recently had an eviction notice taped on their door. The department eventually granted disability benefits. However, the delay makes the family’s financial future uncertain.

Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress recently that the number of disability claims has increased 48 percent over the last four years.

Approximately 905,000 claims are pending at the VA. The department tries to decide cases within 125 days, but 65 percent of the cases are now taking longer than the target. According to a federal court ruling from last May, it can take more than four years for a veteran to get a final decision.

Some reasons for the increase, according the Rand-Corp., a nonprofit research organization, and the Veterans department, are:

  • More brain injuries, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. As many as a third of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from these conditions.
  • Aging veterans
  • Expanded Vietnam-era claims. A recent decision expanded recognized Agent Orange diseases.

To address the backlog in claims, the agency is trying to speed up processing. Allison Hickey, the veteran’s department undersecretary for benefits said the agency has installed new electronic record-keeping systems and added new review teams at regional offices. Plans are also in place to expedite claims that are easy-to-review while sending cases those that are more complex to experienced workers.

The agency recognizes that it is failing veterans when decisions take so long. Faster decisions will allow returning disabled veterans to readjust to life back home without having another fight on their hands.

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, “Veterans Face Ruin Awaiting Benefits as Wounded Swamp VA,” William Selway, May 23, 2012.