More than money needed to fix problems at Department of Veterans Affairs

The Biden administration wants to increase funding for veterans’ health care. President Biden is proposing an additional $8.5 billion in services for veterans next year, in addition to $18 billion to improve VA medical centers in his infrastructure plan.

But the Department of Veterans Affairs has faced some challenges that money alone can’t fix.

One of the most common complaints from veterans is that their benefits are wrongly denied and they have to wait months or years for their appeals.

For example, a month after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the VA denied Keith Brown’s claim, then after months of back and forth, it approved his benefits six days before he died

MORE: Agent Orange and cancer: Veteran dies 1 month after VA reverses denial of benefits

"He was upset to the max," said Keith’s wife Cindy. "There’s got to be something better because if they wait long enough and that vet dies, they are under no obligation to make a determination at all or to pay back pay." 

Also, last year, Candi Weikert came within six days of losing her home because the VA held up her survivor’s benefits until FOX 13 intervened and they promptly approved her with back pay.

MORE: A year and a half later, widow's VA benefits finally come through

Jon Darling is a former VA insider who said he has insight on why many veteran’s benefits are delayed or wrongly denied.

While Congress passed reforms to reduce a backlog of claims, Darling said, based on his experience, policies intended to improve performance in some cases backfired. He said staff has a point assignment they need to reach and that points are determined by the number of claims statistically handled. While that appears to be a good way to keep the process moving, Darling said in practice, it encouraged some to work too fast and commit errors, and/or ramp up the number of denials. He said a rejected claim counts as a claim completed.  

"Denying a claim gave you that one number, it didn’t get anything accomplished, but it gave you the digit," he said. "The regional office can tally that up as another point for a processed claim."

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And if the veteran prevails on appeal, Darlins said it increased the stats.  

"We can get two points off that person," he said.  

He said staff didn’t automatically deny claims, but he said they nit-picked for things disabled veterans -- many of them seniors -- can easily miss. And while he said they could call the veterans and fix many of the issues, they were under pressure to limit each call, which he says discouraged workers from calling to fix minor issues on the forms.

"I truly had a pain in my stomach," he said.  "It wasn’t uncommon to see people sending in forms for a year and a half. When I call these people, I found out, 'My car has already been taken, my home is going into foreclosure, and I lost my spouse six months ago,' and I’m like, and we’re playing around with your paperwork?"

He encouraged veterans to reach out to a veteran service officer who can help fill out the forms for free.  

"The form for people, the first time seeing it, is extremely difficult to complete. If they don’t have the assistance of a knowledgeable veteran service officer, or someone with experience seeing this form, the likelihood of them completing it properly is slim."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs maintains a list of veterans’ service officers. The National Veterans Foundation also offers a list of resources for support at https://nvf.org/veteran-service-officers/.

Veterans’ claims examiners can also be reached through the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs at 727- 319-7440 or via email at VSO@fdva.state.fl.us

LINK: For more information, visit https://floridavets.org/benefits-services/.