After guns and grenades, PA veterans claims delayed

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STILL WAITING–Veteran Dan Blevins, 29, of Carnegie is one of 245,000 U.S. veterans still waiting for benefits. (Photo by Alexandra Kanik/PublicSource)

by Bill Heltzel, PublicSource

Dan Blevins, 29, of Carnegie is one of more than 10,000 veterans in Pennsylvania who has been waiting more than a year for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to rule on disability claims.

In Afghanistan, Blevins jumped from a Humvee onto an icy dirt road and broke his right foot. Even after surgery, he has days when it is too painful to walk.

Since duty in Iraq, he gets migraines that feel as if  “somebody is taking a hammer to my head.”

Because of too many bombs, guns and grenades, he has tinnitus that he believes has cut his hearing by half.

Blevins’ case is caught up in the Pittsburgh regional office, which has one of the worst claims records in the nation. It is ranked 51st out of 58 regional offices, with 79 percent of its cases backlogged for more than four months, including 3,800 veterans waiting more than a year for a ruling.

Veterans served by the Philadelphia office fare better. It is ranked 21st in the country, with 64 percent of its cases backlogged, including 6,300 veterans waiting more than a year.

The problem has been in the spotlight for several years.

In 2010, President Obama pledged to veterans that he would “cut those backlogs, slash those wait times, and deliver your benefits sooner.”

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki promised to reduce errors and clear the backlog — defined as claims pending for more than 125 days — by 2015.

Instead, the logjam has widened and the error rate barely budged.

“This is truly a crisis,” said Paul Sullivan, a former VA claims adjustor who directs veterans outreach for the Bergmann & Moore law firm in Bethesda, Maryland.

No one seems to know when it will end.

Devastating delays

Blevins, who served in the army for a decade, said he filed his claim on March 3, 2012, and hasn’t heard anything from the office since September, when he received a letter stating that his claim was being processed.

Disability payments would help, but mostly he wants physical therapy for the mangled foot and medication for the migraines.

Delays of even a few months can be devastating for veterans.

Many war veterans are struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury. Disabled veterans are often unable to get jobs. They might not have health insurance. Banks are foreclosing on their houses and landlords are evicting them. Their cars are being repossessed. They are running up credit-card debt.

Blevins counts himself lucky. He lives with his fiancé. He works full-time and is studying for a bachelor’s degree in history at Robert Morris University. The VA pays for his education and a stipend of $1,542 a month while he attends college.

As of April 20, about 802,000 disability claims were pending nationally. More than two-thirds were considered backlogged because they were more than four months old.

The VA announced on April 19 that it will expedite claims that have been on hold for a year or more.

Though the Philadelphia office performs better than the Pittsburgh office on many measures, it is not without problems. The VA’s Inspector General recently sampled 60 disability claims from the Philadelphia office and discovered errors that resulted in four veterans receiving an extra $194,130 in payments. Also, some Iraq War veterans were not notified that they were entitled to treatment for mental disorders.

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