June 18, 2018
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Maine veterans suffer hardships because of backlog of benefits cases

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — ‘Delay, deny, until I die.’

That’s something that Jim Pineau, a Marine Corps veteran who now works for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, hears all too often from veterans who are waiting for their benefits claims for disease, injury or illness suffered in the military to move through the bogged-down system at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I have seriously had a veteran from every conflict — from World War II to the Iraq conflict — ask me if ‘they’re just waiting until I die,’” Pineau said. “It’s painful. As a vet myself, it’s painful.”

Maine, however, is in better shape than most other states in handling initial claims and is even working on some overflow cases from New York and Maryland.

As of this week, according to a report from the Veterans Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs had 880,264 pending cases nationally. Those veterans wait an average of 318 days before the government responds to their first-time claim, according to the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting. And veterans who appeal their claims wait an average of nearly three years for a resolution.

In Maine, some, though not all, of those numbers look quite different. Veterans here wait an average of 160 days on first-time claims but those who are appealing the government’s decision still do wait an average of nearly four years for resolution, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Claims that are pending for 125 days or more are considered backlogged. The magnitude of the backlog — 600,000 cases nationally, according to the Veterans Administration, and 1,066 in Maine, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting — has been attracting the ire of frustrated legislators. It’s also attracting the glare of national media and, too often, creating despair for veterans who are stuck in limbo waiting for resolution, according to Maine’s legislative delegation.

Nationally, the average amount of time that veterans have had to wait for the government to respond to an initial claim has nearly doubled in the past four years — up from 177 days to 318 days, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. In Maine, however, the wait time has decreased by more than half — from 241 to 160.

Long wars overseas have overwhelmed the claims process, especially as returning Iraq and Afghan veterans have survived combat injuries at a higher rate than veterans of previous wars, with record numbers of disabilities. An antiquated paper-based claims processing system also has contributed to the backlog.

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has said he is committed to speeding up the process — mainly by installing electronic records systems — and eliminating the backlog by 2015.

But the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog department, has warned that the VA risked falling short of its 2015 target and that its strategy for reducing the backlog fell short of established criteria for sound planning.

Some in Maine are working on efforts to help the Veterans Administration accomplish its goal, including U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who recently called the backlog of claims “unacceptably large.” He and other Democrats on the committee recently announced an aggressive legislative effort to help the VA.

“These bills represent a coordinated effort to put forth a pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach,” he said in a statement. “As we maintain our oversight of VA’s efforts, we look forward to continuing to work with our Republican colleagues to address the backlog and advance forward-looking solutions.”

The proposed legislation is intended to ensure the VA can accurately process claims by requiring better interagency collaboration among pertinent agencies, to encourage the VA to look at better ways to process claims in an electronic system and to strengthen accountability by requiring the VA to track information in a more efficient and effective way made more transparent to the public.

It’s high time, according to veterans and their supporters, including Pingree.

“It’s outrageous that veterans are waiting so long for the benefits we have promised them,” she said Wednesday in a statement released by her office. “When they put on the uniform to serve our country they held up their end of the bargain — now it’s time for us to hold up our end.”

Members of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project are also looking to do their part by offering veterans free legal help with their benefit applications and appeals at a legal clinic scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 18, at the Bangor Public Library at 145 Harlow St.

Five accredited legal advocates will be on hand to help veterans, who are encouraged to bring documents such as the DD-214 and any VA correspondence related to a claim, according to Daniel Dube of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, which is organizing the clinic. It’s being held at the specific request of a veteran who lives in Madawaska and who drove all the way to Augusta for an earlier clinic that attracted about 25 mostly Vietnam-era veterans.

“There’s this old phrase that justice delayed is justice denied, and it’s a matter of getting the help quickly enough to be fully useful to the veteran,” Dube, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working for the legal aid project, said.

The lawyers and other accredited advocates at the library will help veterans navigate some of the challenges of the VA.

Teresa Montague of Clifton can speak at length about some of the elements of those challenges. The 61-year-old is the widow of Donald Lee Duncan, who served in the Army Air Corps at the end of World War II. He died in November 2011, after the couple spent 40 years together, and Montague said she is still fighting to get what she is entitled to receive. She has strong words about the way she believes the VA has given her the runaround and made her wait too long for her benefits.

“Nationally, what’s going on is a horrible tragedy. The numbers are insane. … The problem with the VA is it’s huge. It’s mountainous,” she said this week about the claims backlog. “Any time you send in something new, you are set back for months. … It forces veterans and families into poverty and homelessness.”

Pingree said that the Togus VA’s reputation as a high-performing center could pose additional problems for Maine’s veterans and their families.

“I am concerned that if our center is forced to pick up the slack for other centers around the country that Maine veterans will suffer,” she said this week in a statement. “We would effectively be creating a backlog in Maine by trying to address the backlog in other parts of the country.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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