washingtonpost.com
VA Disability Benefits
Walter Reed and Beyond

Christopher Lee and Ronald Aument
National staff reporter; VA deputy undersecretary for benefits
Monday, April 9, 2007 12:00 PM

Many veterans are growing increasingly frustrated with the time it takes the Department of Veterans Affairs to process their applications for VA disability benefits. VA officials acknowledge that the department could do better, but reject the idea that the delays and denials are motivated by a desire to keep costs down.

On Monday, April 9, 2007 at noon ET Post reporter Christopher Lee was joined by Ronald Aument, VA deputy undersecretary for benefits, and the two will respond to your questions and comments about disability claims.

"Delayed Benefits Frustrate Veterans," by Christopher Lee, Washington Post, April 8, 2007

Read more of the Post's coverage of military and VA health care issues: Walter Reed and Beyond

Submit your questions and comments early or during the discussion.

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Christopher Lee: Welcome everybody. Today's chat will look at the disability benefits system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It serves veterans who suffer from disabilities that are the result of disease or injury that they incurred while in military service. The system has many problems. The VA expects to get some 800,000 claims this year, and it has 400,000 claims pending. It takes about six months, on average, to process a claim, and appeals average about two years.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation is focused more than ever on its veterans. We're lucky to have Ronald Aument, deputy undersecretary for benefits, here to answer many of your questions today. Given that emotions run high on this issue, I give Mr. Aument credit for being willing to take your questions directly. Let's begin.

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Ronald Aument: Good afternoon. Thanks for asking us to join you today in this forum. I look forward to answering your questions and receiving your comments.

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Harlingen, Tex.: I had a board hearing in San Antonio via satellite after the hearing the Judge made more gross obvious mistakes. I appealed to the COVA and my case was remanded to the BVA, however since the Judge has since retired, I have to start the process over again. Furthermore I can only address the original problem, the new mistakes which are very evident and were created by lack of examining all the evidence, I can not mention until the current issue is decided. Now my file will go back to Houston RO for this new decision which started in 2003. I have writen to the person in charge at the the Houston RO, she never answers my letters.

I returned from Vietnam in 1967. A few months later I asked to see a psychiatrist for emotional problems. I was told my problems were not due to Vietnam but due to my parent's separation. The Doc did state I would need long-term therapy, but it would not be practical until I exited the Marine Corps. Does this sound like a normal process? Can this be part of the reason for the "backlog"?

Fred Rendon Jr

Ronald Aument: If you have applied for veterans benefits, you should not have to "reapply" or begin the appeals process from scratch. Because we cannot discuss your private information in this public forum, we ask that you provide your contact information to The Washington Post offline, and we'll be happy to follow up on your case. Thanks for the question.

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Arlington, Va.: What, exactly, is the problem? Do you need more people to do the claims processing? This has been a problem for years. When does it get solved?

Ronald Aument: Additional staffing is certainly part of the solution. We also have to ensure that staff are well trained. But, additional staffing is only part of the solution. The veterans claims process is a highly complex process. There are a number of Congressionally chartered commissions that have been charged with reviewing the process to identify how it can be streamlined. We are very optimistic that we will improve and simplify the system.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Why are veterans prohibiting from having lawyers represent them at these hearings? Given the intricacy and the beauracratise of the process, you would think having that advocate there would help both sides....

Ronald Aument: Thanks for the question. To bring you and others joining us up to speed, Congress has recently enacted legislation to allow lawyers to represent veterans at the Appellate stage of the claims process. Regulations have been drafted and will soon be published in the Federal Register for public comment.

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Washington, D.C.: Does the VA office have a policy on how long a claim should take?

Ronald Aument: Our goal is to process all claims as expeditiously as possible. This year, our goal is to process claims on an average of 160 days. Our long-term strategic goal is to process claims in 125 days. Additional staffing is agressively being added, which will bolster out ability to meet these goals. Thank you for joining us today.

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Christopher Lee: Harlingen, if you submit your information to the Post at militarycare@washpost.com, we will make sure that it gets to Mr. Aument at the VA. Make sure you mention this online chat in your email.

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This seems to sum up the situation to me:"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."

Ronald Aument: Forty-eight percent of Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) staff are veterans. We take seriously our mission of serving veterans. Your conerns are also taken seriously, and we'll continue to do our best to make your experience better. Thanks for the comments.

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Kansas City: My comment is about the incredible arrogance of the VA claims people towards Veterans. I have a claim in for hearing loss from being an avionics technician for 6 years. The claim has been in process for 3 1/2 years so far. Congress required the VA to do a study on hearing loss in veterans from WWII to the late 1970's. I asked to be copied on the progress of the study group and after the study was completed the VA concluded that hearing loss is inherent for certain specialities. The first mentioned was flight line duty. I wrote in one of my appeal letters of the study and that the VA themselves had proven my case. The appeal was turned down because...I was not qualified to interpret the findings of the VA study. I do have a Masters degree and 25 years working in the medical industry but even then there was no need for interpretation, my comment was verbatim from the VA findings.

The other comment I would like to make is the inconsistency between VA's in their rulings. The St. Louis VA, which is effectively the regional office for disability claims for this region, set out guidelines with numerical values to determine hearing loss. According to the St Louis memo, I indeed have loss proven by the VA's own audiologist 3 1/2 years ago. I had the misfortune to be assigned to the Wichita, Kan. VA. They are notorious for their footdragging and reluctance to approve claims. Had I sent my claim to St. Louis everything would be done by now. The crapshoot of which VA handles your claim makes the difference in the speed of processing and even if you are approved or denied. The VA claims process really does not work for the veteran's benefit. It is a game of attrition and silly bureaucrats trying to wear down veterans with endless appeals and years of obsfucation.

Michael Mather

Ronald Aument: You raise a number of issues in your question. We would be glad to look into issues related to your claim. Because of privacy considerations, please provide Chris Lee of the Washington Post your contact information and we'll follow up with you.

Regarding the study you reference, it was conducted by the Institute of Medicine, and documented hearing exposures and preservation efforts by the Department of Defense since World War II. VA formed a work group to consider the findings. We expect to be making recommendations for follow-up actions in the near future. Thanks for the question.

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Washington, D.C.: Given the problems revealed by the Post's Walter Reed coverage and the current anti-Iraq war climate among voters, do you feel more of a mandate to get this right than perhaps you have in the past?

Ronald Aument: VA has always felt the mandate to do what is best for veterans. Our committment is unwavering, and we do feel a special sense of urgency today with our returning heroes as they turn to VA for services. To that end, VA has prioritized claims processing for those returning from the Global War on Terrorism.

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Alexandria, Va.: All of this is good lip action, but for real, you have people out there with problems that aren't being addressed. I mean, we're still talking about Vietnam-era vets, forget about the Desert Storm vets and the influx of people from the latest war. Outline what, exactly, you plan to -do- to make this right!

Ronald Aument: Add staff. Simplify the process. And shorten the time veterans wait for decisions. That's our objective.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Mr. Aument,

I am a Marine Corps Veteran without any disabilities whatsoever. So I write on behalf of our brothers who have service connected diabilities. It seems, in conversations with them, that there is a attitude problem with the VA when it comes to disability. Without getting into details, doesn't it make sense to give the disabled service person the benefit of doubt?

Clearly this will raise the cost of going to war. But where do you draw the line on the sacrifices made by the grunts in the trenches?

Ronald Aument:"Benefit of the doubt," as you describe it, is something that is a fundamental part of the claims process. It is also something that we build into our claims processing training. As many of us are veterans, I can tell you with complete confidence that we share your appreciation for those who have sacrificed so much for us all.

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Mr. Lee: How hard was it for you to get people to talk on the record about this? Was no one afraid it would have some bearing in their case?

Christopher Lee: Actually, most people needed no persuading. After our Walter Reed stories appeared, the Post was deluged with calls and emails from veterans, many of whom are struggling with the VA disability benefits system. Many urged us to write about their cases, and to include their names. A few people did not want to participate, but all of the veterans quoted in my story were fully aware that their names would appear. Many expressed a hope that an airing of their experiences would help other veterans in similar situations.

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Washington, D.C. : OK, so, the process is complex. Groups have studied it. What did they recommend for fixing? Have you implemented any of those suggestions? I guess I'm still having a hard time grasping WHY this is a problem, which is likely why so many people think it's just a pig in a poke.

Ronald Aument: In the interest of answering as many questions today as possible, let me suggest that you read the most recent claims processing Task Force study report, which includes a number of recommendations, can be found on www.va.gov

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Vets as processors: I know you said many of the processors are vets, but the common thread of complaint seems to be that the processor has no empathy and/or comes across as uncaring, cold even. Can/do you provide sensitivity training for your processors? I can imagine it's hard enough dealing with your physical problems without being treated like crap by the people tasked with helping you.

Ronald Aument: Thanks for the question. You raise a very important point. VA does provide customer service training for our employees, and consider it an important part of our mission to serve veterans in a professional and courteous manner.

VA also conducts silent monitoring of our claims personnel to ensure questions veterans have are being answered accurately and courteously.

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Austin, Tex.: My father was receiving VA benefits for his treatment of cancer (melanoma). He passed away in March '06. My mother, his wife of 26 years, filed for survivor benefits/pension in-person with the regional office in Tennessee, where they were living. The regional office LOST her paperwork THREE times. She handed it to a real, live person three separate times and each time it was lost. Finally, the fourth time and a year later someone got it processed and guess what...they denied an unemployed (read, no income) widow of a Vietnam vet any benefits whatsoever. She now has to appeal and hope they don't "lose" the paperwork again. The only possible reason I can think of that she might have been denied is because of a small life insurance policy. How much would that affect a survivor receiving their benefit?

Ronald Aument: Thank you for your question. We offer our condolences to your family. If you provide Chris Lee of the Washington Post your contact information, we'd be happy to look into your mother's claim.

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Sterling, Va.: Paperwork gets lost, missing, filed incorrectly...why, in the 21st century, are you still a "paper-based" processing agency?

Ronald Aument: I appreciate your question. We understand your concern. That's why we are working with the Department of Defense to streamline the exchange of information as active duty personnel transition to veteran status. Within VA, medical records are already online and availabe to claims processors. Additionally, we have access to Social Security information online. This technology is enhancing our ability to operate more efficiently and with less paper.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: I would think it wouldn't be THAT hard to find some good folks to work for your agency. What is the criteria for a new hire? Where are you looking? What are the barriers to getting the staffing numbers you need to get the job done?

Ronald Aument: Thanks for the question. I hope it stopped snowing in Buffalo. The position openings to work for VA in our Regional Offices are posted on the Office of Personnel Management's website: www.usajobs.gov. Qualification criteria are also available on this website.

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Gulf Shores, Ala.: How much training does a person have when acting as a reviewer of requests for benefits?

Ronald Aument: I appreciate the question. All new employees undergo an intense three week, centralized training course. In addition, employees are continously exposed to on the job training. Claims processing, as many of you have noted, is pretty complex work. Thus, it often takes three years of being on the job before an employee reaches "journeyman" level abilities. We require all employees to go through 80 hours of formal refresher training. Further, we continue to hire new employees, as I noted before. This will help us improve processing times.

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Lincoln, Calif.: Mr. Aument,

I am a disabled Vet rated at 30%. I have tried many times to seek medical help from a VA hospital. They say 30% is not enough of a percentage to qualify for help at a VA hospital. Is this true? Also a friend of mine who is also DV told me the VA was considering a buyout program to slim down the number of DVs. Is this true?

Ronald Aument: Thanks for the question. Let me correct what you've heard. Any service-connected veteran rated at 30 percent is eligible for enrollment in VA's health care system. VA currently has no proposals forthcoming related to your second question.

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San Antonio Tex.: Can you explain why a two time purple heart vet 30 years of service can have 6 different claims but recieve zero percent disability?

Ronald Aument: I appreciate the question you've posed. I can provide a more detailed answer if you share your contact information with Chris Lee with the Washington Post.

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Murfreesboro, Tenn.: I'm not a soldier and don't have any vets in my family, prolly a rare thing in these Americas, but I have to say, reading these stories makes me angry. What can the average person do to help make this right? Can we volunteer to help with processing?

Ronald Aument: Thank you for your concern. While it is not possible to become a volunteer claims processor, there are great opportunites to provide other voluntary services within the VA system. I encourage you to contact your nearest VA medical center to speak with one of our voluntary services coordiators. Also check out www.va.gov/volunteer

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Washington, D.C.: Obviously you are working with the system you have which aint great. So, for at least TRYING to reform the system and make it better, I just wanted to say thank you. Some effort is better than none at all.

Ronald Aument: Thank you for you kind comments.

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Ronald Aument: Folks -- Thank you for allowing me to participate in this forum. God bless you all, and the brave men and women who continue to answer the call to defend our nation.

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Christopher Lee: Folks, I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Thanks for participating in this discussion of a vitally important subject. And thanks again to Ronald Aument for making himself available to take your questions today. For those who Mr. Aument suggested that you pass on your information to me, you can do so by emailing militarycare@washpost.com. Just remember to summarize your problem again, and to mention this online chat, and I'll forward the messages on to the VA folks. Thanks again everyone.

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