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Many Western North Carolina veterans have waited a long time to have their claims for benefits approved. Some who are tired of waiting have turned to their congressional representatives for help.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who represents the 11th District, criticized U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials on Oct. 30 at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing for “mismanagement and wasteful spending” while there remains a backlog of veterans’ claims for benefits.
Meadows said in his comments that it is “unacceptable for the Department of Veterans Affairs to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on employee conferences while veterans are forced to wait nearly two years for their claims to be processed.”
“My staff and I are actively working with veterans in Western North Carolina whose claims are trapped in the VA’s backlog,” Meadows said. “Since January, our office alone has received more than 300 requests for assistance from veterans having a difficult time dealing with the VA.”
While every representative’s office is different, Meadows’ office does receive many requests for assistance related to the Department of Veterans Affairs due to the large number of veterans who reside in the 11th District, said Emily Miller, communications director for Meadows.
“Most of the veterans contacting our office have requested assistance with expediting claims trapped in the VA’s backlog, some for up to two years,” she said. “However, we do receive a wide variety of requests.”
Miller said that Meadows’ district staff is often able to expedite these claims because they are experts in working with federal agencies and have existing relationships with many of the people who oversee these cases.
“Given this knowledge and a dedication to ensuring our constituents receive a resolution, we are often able to move cases quickly through the system,” Miller said.
Like many Americans who are confused about the Obamacare health insurance exchanges, Miller said veterans are also unsure about how the health-care law impacts them.
Most veterans enrolled in VA health-care programs have health coverage that meets the Affordable Care Act’s standards and do not have to take additional steps to meet the health care law. However, veterans still have some unanswered questions, she said.
“The Obama administration has been unclear on how Obamacare will impact TRICARE, which provides health care for veterans. We have received many calls to our office with inquiries on this issue,” Miller said. “Our nation must ensure we keep our word to our veterans, which includes protecting the benefits they were promised and deserve.”
Trying to get help
Some — like Virgil Willis, of Marion — have faced long and repeated waits.
Willis served three years in the Army and was wounded twice while in Vietnam. He was honorably discharged in 1969 and tried to return to work, but after a couple of years realized he couldn’t, due to his injuries.
Willis filed a disability claim and was awarded a 10 percent disability for benefits. He appealed, and it took a couple of years until he was awarded 100 percent. The higher the percentage of a disability, the greater the compensation is.
Now, he is waiting again. He remarried last July and has been trying to add his wife to his claim, which would increase his monthly benefits.
Signing his wife up for the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs, known as CHAMPVA, did not take long. CHAMPVA is a health-care benefits program that provides coverage to the spouse, widow or widower and dependent children of a qualifying veteran or service member.
“I understand it takes time and a lot of veterans are filing claims,” Willis said. “I know I will get it eventually.”
Dr. Herbert Johnson, of Asheville, was a flight surgeon and ship physician for the U.S. Coast Guard. He became suddenly ill in October 1981 and was semi-comatose. When that passed, he was barely able to speak, was extremely weak and was unable to get his balance when standing.
He eventually was diagnosed with organic brain syndrome.
“I had been bitten by ticks five or six days prior, so I suspect some connection,” Johnson said. “They did not have a test for Lyme Disease at that time.”
No therapy was ever offered to Johnson, who has never fully recovered and continues to lack coordination in his hands.
His condition prompted early retirement and 100 percent disability from the Coast Guard. However, the VA gave him only a 40 percent disability. He applied for a higher rating from the VA last year.
“Finally last year, with the help of my wife, I was able to connect the dots and was able to raise the VA disability level from 40 percent to 100 percent,” Johnson said.
According to a news report published this week by The Center for Investigative Reporting, however, wait times for veterans benefits have been on a recent decline. Go here to view their map detailing which parts of the country are facing the largest backlog. In the story, CIR reported:
“Internal VA documents, obtained by CIR, revealed the agency’s ability to provide earned benefits quickly had virtually collapsed under President Barack Obama, with the number of veterans waiting more than a year for compensation increasing by more than 2,000 percent, to 256,000 in March.
“Since then, the number of veterans facing delays for a year or longer has fallen to 34,000, and the average time veterans have been waiting has dropped by nearly four months.”
Backlogs in North Carolina
But U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who represents the 10th District, has also heard from many frustrated veterans, said Jeff Butler, McHenry’s director of communications. He said staff in McHenry’s office has reached out to the Winston-Salem office of Veterans Affairs, which is where most of the claims in this area go.
But, that Winston-Salem office is one of the VA offices with the longest waits for pending appeals for service-related disabilities, according to a news release by Allsup, an agency that provides veterans disability appeals services.
Allsup reported that the VA Regional Office in Winston-Salem has a backlog of 11,327 appeals.
The backlog of compensation claims has grown, and the average wait is now 300 days, Butler said. Sixty percent of the pending claims are supplemental and 40 percent are original, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Vietnam claims make up 38 percent of the backlog; with Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts claims making up 22 percent; Gulf War, 21 percent; peace time, 11 percent; Korean War, 4 percent; World War II, 3 percent; and other era claims making up the remaining 1 percent of the backlog, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The goal of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to statement from the VA, is to eliminate the backlog of compensation claims pending for more than 125 days by the end of 2015.
To get help with claims
To learn more about veterans’ benefits, go to http://benefits.va.gov. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ website includes a list of resources for more information. Download all the form letters and any other documentation that will support the veteran’s case. Gather all military, private and VA medical records. Always keep a copy of anything sent to the VA.
Another helpful site to consider going to is http://www.veteransresources.net.
Editor Angie Newsome contributed to this report.