Veteran’s Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald made the pledge when he came to Columbus following media reports, including some done by 10 Investigates, which showed some veterans waiting years for their benefits.
“Our commitment is to get that down to zero by the end of the year,” he said in 2015.
The Veterans Administration is made of two parts. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) runs veterans medical clinics and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) manages veteran’s disability payments.
10 Investigates wanted to know what has happened with the benefits backlog?
It Depends on Where You Look
Charts on the VA’s website show disability and pension claims went down from 611,073 in March 2013, to 77,483 in April 2016. However, after hearing from veterans that long waits continue, 10 Investigates dug deeper.
Data obtained by 10 Investigates shows the average wait in 2014 was 436 days, close to 15 months, for one type of disability compensation payment. 10 Investigates discovered that delay has since grown to a 532 days, approaching 18 months, in 2015.
In addition, the latest report from the Veteran’s Affairs Inspector General’s office took a sample of 90 disability claims.
The Cleveland office managing Ohio veterans made mistakes on 30 of those disability claims. That meant veterans were short $737,231 in disability payments.
Since this was just a sample means that the actual lost wages of Ohio veterans is actually in the millions of dollars.
“The Cleveland VA Regional Office reviewed all claims identified in the VA OIG report and took corrective actions on those found in error. It should be noted that cases sampled did not represent the true universe of claims completed by the regional office, but were cases considered to be at an increased risk of processing errors due to their difficulty and complexity.
“Overall claims’ accuracy in Cleveland for FY 2015 was 93.6% compared to the national average of 90.7%. The Cleveland VA Regional Office also continuously offers training to its staff to improve accuracy, including training recently provided in the areas identified in the OIG report,” the VA Cleveland Office replied in a written statement.
The Ohio VA office declined 10 Investigates request for an interview.
Back to Honduras
When 10 Investigates first visited Retired Army Sergeant James Creamer last May, he was entering his 9th year of fighting for his disability payments.
Sgt. Creamer received the Army Achievement Medal for service in hurricane relief efforts in 1999. The Chinook helicopter Creamer was on crashed and he was sent to a Honduran hospital. Creamer was honored for pulling fellow soldiers out of the wreckage.
Five back surgeries later, Creamer remains in daily pain and is only considered 40% disabled by federal standards. The Army believes the back injury happened because of a natural aging process. Creamer is 46 years old.
“I had my federal court date in November of last year. 92 days after my court date I received a letter from the judge. My appeal has been remanded, which means the judge is requesting more information from the United States military – that they cannot find or locate. Thirty days after that, I received another letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs where the VA is requesting I get the information myself,” said Creamer.
When asked where he was asked to get documents from, Creamer replied “Honduras, sir. Soto Cano Air Force Base in Honduras. If they can’t find it, I definitely don’t have access to it.”
Creamer now walks slowly with a cane and is awaiting his 6th back surgery. Congressman Steve Stivers (R-Hilliard), an Army National Guardsman himself, is working to help Creamer.
“We’ve requested additional documentation from the Department of the Army separately to help Mr. Creamer show what happened. That’s hopefully coming. It’s hard now. We’ve had to go to safety reports and other things that may be out there because the information is not in his medical record,” said Rep. Stivers.
Disabled & divorced
“It’s been 478 days since they turned my case over to a review officer,” said Robert Sprague, a Mansfield Army veteran of the Vietnam War.
Sprague suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because of combat experiences in Vietnam. Past behavioral health issues prevented him from keeping steady employment.
The VA considers him only 40% disabled – meaning he receives just more than $500 a month to help cover living expenses. A person considered 100% disabled can receive more than $3,000 in a monthly stipend.
Sprague appealed the decision.
Meanwhile, Sprague’s wife was notified that her social security checks would be stopped if Sprague continued to collect a non-service connected pension from the Army. So the Spragues took the only action they could think of to keep both necessary revenue sources: they divorced.
Help for veterans
There are groups that offer to help veterans navigate their battle for benefits.
“The best thing a member of the military can do when leaving service is to get copies of all their medical records,” said Garry Augustine, Executive Director at non-profit group Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
Augustine believes that every outgoing service member should get outside representation while seeking a disability claim.
The DAV offers free assistance to obtain veteran disability compensation through www.dav.org or 216-522-3507 to reach DAV’s Cleveland office.