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Veterans Face Vast Inequities Over Disability
By IAN URBINA and RON NIXON
Published: March 9, 2007
WASHINGTON, March 8 — Staff Sgt. Gregory L. Wilson, from the Texas National Guard, waited nearly two years for his veterans’ disability check after he was injured in Iraq. If he had been an active-duty soldier, he would have gotten more help in cutting through the red tape.
Allen Curry of Chicago has fallen behind on his mortgage while waiting nearly two years for his disability check. If he had filed his claim in a state deploying fewer troops than Illinois, Mr. Curry, who was injured by a bomb blast when he was a staff sergeant in the Army Reserve in Iraq, would most likely have been paid sooner and gotten more in benefits.
Veterans face serious inequities in compensation for disabilities depending on where they live and whether they were on active duty or were members of the National Guard or the Reserve, an analysis by The New York Times has found.
Those factors determine whether some soldiers wait nearly twice as long to get benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs as others, and collect less money, according to agency figures.
“The V.A. is supposed to provide uniform and fair treatment to all,” said Steve Robinson, the director of veteran affairs for Veterans for America. “Instead, the places and services giving the most are getting the least.”
The agency said it was trying to ease the backlog and address disparities by hiring more claims workers, authorizing more overtime and adding claims development centers.
The problems partly stem from the agency’s inability to prepare for predictable surges in demand from certain states or certain categories of service members, say advocates and former department officials. Numerous government reports have highlighted the agency’s backlog of disability claims and called for improvements in shifting resources.
“It’s Actuary Science 101,” said Paul Sullivan, who until last March monitored data on returning veterans for the V.A. “When 5,000 new troops get deployed from California, you can logically expect a percent of them will show up at the V.A. in California in a year with predictable types of problems.”
“It makes no sense to wait until the troop is already back home to start preparing for them,” Mr. Sullivan said. “But that’s what the V.A. does.”
Veterans’ advocates say the types of bureaucratic obstacles recently disclosed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are eclipsed by those at the Veterans Affairs division that is supposed to pay soldiers for service-related ills. The influx of veterans from the Iraq war has nearly overwhelmed an agency already struggling to meet the health care, disability payment and pension needs of more than three million veterans.
Stephen Meskin, who retired last year as the V.A.’s chief actuary, said he had repeatedly urged agency managers to track data so they could better meet the needs of former soldiers. “Where are the new vets showing up?” Mr. Meskin said he kept asking. “They just shrugged.”
Agency officials say they have begun an aggressive oversight effort to determine if all disability claims are being properly processed and contracted for a study that will examine state-by-state differences in average disability compensation payments.
“V.A.’s focus is to assure consistent application of the regulations governing V.A. disability determinations in all states,” the department said in a written statement.
Many new veterans say they are often left waiting for months or years, wondering if they will be taken care of.
Unable to work because of post-traumatic stress disorder and back injuries from a bomb blast in Iraq in 2004, Specialist James Webb of the Army ran out of savings while waiting 11 months for his claim. In the fall of 2005, Mr. Webb said, he began living on the streets in Decatur, Ga., a state that has the 10th-largest backlog of claims in the country.
“I should have just gone home to be with family instead of trying to do it on my own,” said Mr. Webb, who received a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. “But with the post-traumatic stress disorder, I just didn’t want any relationships.”
After waiting 11 months, he began receiving his $869 monthly disability check and he moved into a house in Newnan, Ga. About three weeks ago, Mr. Webb moved back home to live with his parents in Kingsport, Tenn.
The backlogs are worst in some states sending the most troops, and discrepancies exist in pay levels.
Illinois, which has deployed the sixth-highest number of soldiers of any state, has the second-largest backlog. The average disability payment for Illinois veterans — $7,803 a year — is among the lowest in the nation, according to 2005 V.A. data.
In Pennsylvania, which has sent the fourth-highest number of troops, the claims office in Pittsburgh is tied for second for longest backlogs, where 4 out of 10 claims have been pending for more than six months. Veterans from this state on average receive relatively low payments, $8,268 per year, according to 2005 V.A. data. Comparable 2006 data were not available.
The agency’s inspector general in 2005 examined geographic variations in how much veterans are paid for disabilities, finding that demographic factors, like the average age of each state’s veteran population, played roles. But the report also pointed to the subjective way that claims processors in each state determined level of disability.
Staffing levels at the veterans agency vary widely and have not kept pace with the increased demand. The current inventory of disability claims rose to 378,296 by the end of the 2006 fiscal year. The claims from returning war veterans plus those from previous periods increased by 39 percent from 2000 to 2006. During the same period, the staff for handling claims has remained relatively flat, a problem the department highlighted in its 2008 proposed budget. The department expects to receive about 800,000 new claims in 2007 and 2008 each.
“It’s clear to everyone here that the system over all is struggling and some veterans are waiting far too long for decisions,” Senator Larry E. Craig, Republican of Idaho, said Wednesday at a hearing before the Senate veterans affairs committee.
The growing strains on the veterans agency have affected some soldiers more than others.
While the Reserve and National Guard have sent a disproportionate number of soldiers to the war, the average annual disability payment for those troops is $3,603, based on 2006 V.A. data for unmarried veterans with no dependents. Active-duty soldiers on average receive $4,962.
Though the V.A. acknowledged that there were discrepancies, officials also said they believed that a significant factor might be length of service. Active-duty soldiers generally serve longer, and therefore more suffer from chronic diseases or disabilities that develop over time. Many who served in the Guard think they are losing the battle against the bureaucracy.
“We take a harder toll,” said Mr. Wilson, the Texan, referring to the fate of reservists and Guard troops compared with active duty soldiers.
He said that last month he received his disability check for his back injuries but only after a 21-month wait and the intervention of a congressman and a colonel.
When active-duty soldiers near discharge, they have access to far more programs offering assistance with benefits than do reserve and National Guard soldiers, according to veterans’ advocates.
“The active-duty guys, they get those resources,” Mr. Wilson said. “We don’t.”
He said that while active-duty soldiers often received medical disability evaluations in about 30 days, many reservists he knew waited two years or more to get an initial appointment. Active-duty personnel also routinely received legal advice about appeals and other issues from military lawyers, while reservists had to request those hearings, he said.
For years, the V.A.’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, members of Congress and veterans’ advocates have pointed out the need to improve how the V.A. tracks data on soldiers as they are deployed and when they are injured. That would help prepare for their future needs and ease delays in processing health and benefit claims.
In 2004, a system was designed to track soldiers better, prepare for surges in demand and avoid backlogs. But the system was shelved by program officials under Secretary Jim Nicholson for financial and logistical reasons, V.A. officials said Thursday at a hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The V.A., which has said it has an alternate tracking system nearly operational, depends on paper files and lacks the ability to download Department of Defense records into its computers.
President Bush has appointed a commission to investigate problems at military and veterans hospitals.
For Mr. Curry, the reservist from Chicago who has fallen behind on his mortgage payments, his previous life as a $60,000-a-year postal worker is a fading memory. “It’s just disheartening,” he said. “You feel like giving up sometimes.”