Delayed Benefits Frustrate Veterans

Frank A. Lewis says of his dad's attempts to get disability from VA:
Frank A. Lewis says of his dad's attempts to get disability from VA: "I have a feeling they were just waiting for my father to drop dead so they wouldn't have to pay any money." (Photos By Oscar Sosa For The Washington Post)
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

In his last years, World War II veteran Seymour D. Lewis would stand at the door of his home in Savannah, Ga., waiting for a letter that never arrived.

The family of the former Army private, who lost the hearing in his right ear to a grenade explosion in basic training in 1944, spent years wrestling with the federal bureaucracy for his disability benefits, at one point waiting more than a year just to be told to fill out more forms.

In 2001, the Department of Veterans Affairs started sending Lewis a monthly check for $200, an amount he appealed as too little and too late for the lasting physical sacrifice he made for his country, his family said. The appeal was still pending when Lewis died last year at age 80.

"Every time I would call, they would send me a new form to fill out, with exactly the same information that they already had," said his son Frank A. Lewis, 61, a Navy veteran. "They run you around. They keep you dangling. . . . My father was elderly. He would wait at the front door for the mailman, waiting for something from the VA. When he would get a letter, he would anxiously open it, and when it said nothing, the depression he would go into was unreal. I have a feeling they were just waiting for my father to drop dead so they wouldn't have to pay any money. It's been one big nightmare."

Hundreds of thousands of veterans, many approaching the winter of their lives, await VA disability claim decisions that will provide or deny a key source of income. The monthly payments, which range from $115 to $2,471 for individuals, are available to veterans of any age whose disability is "a result of disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service," according to the Veterans Benefits Administration.

Nearly 400,000 disability claims were pending as of February, including 135,741 that exceeded VA's 160-day goal for processing them. The department takes six months, on average, to process a claim, and the waiting time for appeals averages nearly two years.

This already strained system may grow more overburdened in years ahead as many of the troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan return from those wars, experts say. VA gives veterans from the current conflicts top priority in claims processing.

"The projected number of claims from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will rapidly turn the disability claims problem into a crisis," said Linda J. Bilmes, a Harvard University professor of public policy who has studied the claims process and met with VA Secretary Jim Nicholson last month to discuss ways to improve it. Bilmes, who noted that those officially wounded in combat would be a small percentage of new veterans applying for compensation, estimated the long-term cost of providing them disability benefits at $70 billion to $150 billion.

Presidents, members of Congress and VA leaders have long promised to eliminate the backlog, but still the veterans wait. Some depict a cultural problem at VA -- an attitude of indifference or hostility among claims workers, a lack of appreciation for veterans' service reflected in snubbed phone calls, slow answers and repetitive paperwork. Some even believe the delays are deliberate, a way to keep costs down by deterring new claims or postponing awards until older veterans die.

"Once we can no longer be utilized as a soldier, we are of no use to them," said Michael Foley, 52, a former Navy intelligence specialist who served in Vietnam and Cyprus during the 1970s. "There is an impression of indifference when you are dealing with the VA benefits people. They are going to get a paycheck no matter what."

Foley has trouble sleeping and endures nightmares from things he saw in the service. The Thomasville, N.C., resident said he is in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, but VA denied the disability benefits claim that he filed more than 2 1/2 years ago. He has appealed. Foley also wants VA compensation for a heart procedure in 2004 that he says left him in the hospital for 137 days with complications that included a paralyzed right leg.

"A lot of people think all veterans want a handout. That's not it," said Foley, who is unemployed and lives on less than $1,100 a month, including a $240 VA pension. "When I was in the Navy, they asked me to do things. At the time, it was exciting. My grandfather warned me that this was going to come back and bite me . . . one day. And it has. I lost my job, my house and everything else."

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