The decorated Vietnam War veteran with an aching back sought care at the Fresno Veterans Affairs Medical Center in California.
Then the unnamed vet found himself on the vexing backlog of veterans appealing benefits decisions. While lawmakers and civil servants alike struggle to shrink the backlog, politics is slowing the arrival of reinforcements.
A fiscal 2017 funding bill that includes major boosts for the beleaguered Board of Veterans Appeals remains hung up for unrelated reasons. The delay, while it won’t last forever, epitomizes the frustrations facing many veterans.
“Unconscionably, thousands of veterans who have sacrificed for our country are struggling to access benefits they have already earned,” Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., said during House debate on the bill.
Lawmakers have agreed on delivering a record $156 million for the board, a whopping 42 percent increase over the current year and enough to enable the hiring of 242 additional full-time equivalent workers.
The Obama administration sought the increase, warning in its budget request that “on average, veterans are waiting about five years for an adjudication of an appeal, with thousands waiting much longer.” More than 81,000 certified appeals were pending before the board by the end of fiscal 2015, according to the board’s annual report.
“While the VA has made some improvements, the backlog is still unacceptable and affects too many veterans in my district and across the nation,” Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., said Friday.
The present legal framework for the VA appeals process is complex, inefficient, and confusing, and veterans are waiting too long for final resolution of an appeal...the status quo isn’t acceptable for veterans or for tax payers.
Department of Veterans Affairs
The money for the board, in turn, is embedded in a larger Department of Veterans Affairs appropriations package that includes money to fight the Zika virus. And that’s stalled amid much Capitol Hill finger-pointing.
Democrats blame Republicans for salting the bill with cuts to Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act that they find unpalatable. Republicans blame Democrats for slowing the bill down. Lawmakers will have to resolve the conflict after the Fourth of July recess.
The appeals process addressed by the funding bill is part of the VA’s overall disability benefits program, some areas of which have shown considerable improvement. While completing a record 1.39 million disability claims last year, the department slashed its claims backlog by 88 percent from its high in March 2103.
The Board of Veterans Appeals expects to receive some 57,000 substantive complaints this year from veterans who dispute their benefits eligibility as assessed by VA officials. The board makes the cases public, with names redacted.
The Fresno-area man with a back problem, for instance, is described as a combat veteran who served in Vietnam between January 1969 and January 1970. His service was recognized with, among other decorations, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm.
The veteran, according to the board, says he injured his spine while “jumping and diving into the ground to avoid rocket fire.” In December 2005, a regional VA officer rejected the man’s claims for a spinal disability. He appealed. Following years of waiting and some interim action, which included the granting of some benefits, the Board of Veterans Appeals in April 2016 ordered still more fact-finding.
In a similar vein, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge went to the Sacramento VA Medical Center in 2009 complaining of hearing loss that he attributed to exposure to “artillery, grenades, claymore mines and mortars.” He was denied the benefits he sought.
The Sacramento-area veteran appealed in July 2010. The Board of Veterans Appeals hearing was finally scheduled for July 2015. In March 2016, following developments that included the veteran dropping his request for a hearing, the board remanded the case for more fact-finding.
All told, in 2015, the Board of Veterans Appeals remanded about 46 percent of cases, allowed 32 percent and denied 19 percent.
“VA recognizes that . . . veterans are waiting too long for final resolution of appeals,” Laura Eskenazi, the board’s vice chair and executive in charge, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2014.
A VA representative could not be reached Friday, but they have previously warned the rucksack could get heavier.
“Without fundamental legislative reform and additional resources, VA projects that the number of pending appeals will soar to more than 2.2 million by the end of 2027,” the VA said in its fiscal 2017 budget request.
The congressional negotiators responsible for the VA funding bill, who included Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, agreed that they are skeptical that the board “will be able to make a significant dent in the backlog” without further changes.
Any revisions, moreover, will come too late for those such as a Vietnam-era veteran who was evaluated in 2006 for back problems and diabetes at the Fresno VA Medical Center.
This veteran, board records show, appealed the VA’s initial findings in a hearing held in January 2011. On March 29, 2016, following additional fact-finding, the board completed the case with what amounted to a split decision for the veteran who had left the service in 1969.