Officials tackling backlog at VA

By:  Dave Sutor

Tim Susengill calls it his “in-the-cracks letter.”

He sends it to the Department of Veterans Affairs whenever a local veteran spends more than a year waiting for a response to a medical claim.

In the not too distant past, Susengill, a Vietnam Veterans of America Service Office representative in Blair County, wrote about one a month.

He now finds himself needing to mail two or three per week. Susengill said writing the letters, for veterans who have fallen into the cracks of the system, has been a “fairly successful” approach toward dealing with delayed claims in his organization’s 14-county region that includes Bedford, Somerset, Cambria and Indiana counties, a territory covered by the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona.

But, still, a major problem exists.

Pennsylvania has one of the longest backlog delays of any state.

Veterans who file through the Pittsburgh VA Regional Office can expect an average wait of 625 days for a response, according to a report from the Veterans Benefits Administration Office of Performance Analysis and Integrity. The average duration is 510.3 days through the Philadelphia headquarters.

“The backlog historically was handled within six months before most cases were finished,” said Susengill, whose organization processes about 500 claims per year. “That has gradually ended.”

Claims based upon service-connected issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, can often take more than a year to finalize, according to Nancy Tavalsky, executive director of the Cambria County Veterans’ Affairs Office. Aiding-and-assisting claims, in which veterans, spouses or widows receive care in nursing facilities or at home, do not usually require as long a wait.

The county’s veterans office tells applicants to expect an average delay of eight to 12 months.

However, during the wait, veterans often must cover the cost of their own health care and hope to receive reimbursement afterward.

“It affects them tremendously because if they don’t have the resources to cover their expenses until this comes through they can be put out of a facility or they can have to relocate,” said Tavalsky.

Multiple factors have helped create the backlog

• The VA still uses a paper-based recording system, instead of electronic processing.

• Many Vietnam veterans now are in their 60s or 70s and encountering medical issues associated with those age groups.

• In recent years, the VA has expanded the amount of diseases considered to be Agent Orange presumptive conditions. The list now includes ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s and several forms of leukemia. Therefore, any Vietnam veteran who served on the ground or in an inland waterway from Jan. 9, 1962, until May 7, 1975, is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used during the war, and, therefore, automatically eligible for certain benefits.

• PTSD requirements have been relaxed.

• Claims have become more complex because medical technology has saved lives on the battlefield, but left wounded veterans with serious long-term medical conditions.

• The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq created an influx of younger veterans seeking VA?assistance.

“I think it’s a problem that has been building for years, really,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, who spent much of this week attending the Showcase for Commerce in Johnstown. “It has been made that much worse because we have a lot of returning soldiers from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The system has been strained and tested in ways that it hasn’t been.”

Politicians throughout the state have responded to the backlog, both in terms of directly assisting individual veterans and trying to fix the larger-scale problem.

“We’re telling veterans, locally, across the 12th district and anybody in Johnstown, if you think you’ve been waiting an inordinate amount of time, please contact us,” said U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley.

Casey sent letters to President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, urging them to address the backlog.

Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Republican Pat Toomey, sent a letter to Obama, too.

“When we ask men and women to serve this country, put themselves at great risk and, in many cases, to be harmed in the process, at a minimum, they ought to get the proper care that they’ve earned,” said Toomey during a meeting with The Tribune-Democrat on Thursday.

“That’s a problem.”

Toomey feels the VA?needs to inform the Senate about what steps need to be taken to alleviate the problem. “The people who are the experts at administering this are going to have to tell us what they need to get through this backlog,” Toomey said. “It might be additional personnel. It might be systems improvements. It might be some combination. I’m open to what we need to do.”

More than 60 percent of claims nationwide are considered backlogged because they have been pending 125 days or longer. The VA’s goal is to eliminate the backlog by 2015.