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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 04 April 2013

Cleveland McCord spent years filing disability claims and appeals to have his injuries recognized. Now he helps other veterans through the National Association of Black Veterans. Read his story.

Last month a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting slammed the Veterans Administration for a "culture of complacency," after it found waiting times for disability claims have increased under the Obama administration.

"…the agency's ability to quickly provide service-related benefits has virtually collapsed under President Barack Obama," wrote reporter  Aaron Glantz who covered the story for the center.

But one veteran, who knows the system better than almost anyone outside the Veterans Administration, says the biggest problem he sees is with the appeals system. About 40,000 cases are appealed every year.

 "The bottleneck is in the Appeals Management Center," says Dr. Craig Bash, who helps veterans win claims and appeals with his medical testimony.

Based in Washington DC, the Appeals Center has nine hearing rooms, served by100 judges. And five rooms are set up for video hearings, Bash says. 

"They are underutilized. They could schedule six patients a day in each of those nine rooms. They could easily do 50 hearings a day. But they're doing four or five. That's a waste of resources. They're operating at 10 percent of capacity.

"That's one thing I think they really need to fix. They could work a lot harder there."

Bash says he's written to Veteran Administration Sec. Eric Shinseki to expose the problem with the Appeals Center.  But he says he has sympathy for the VA's argument that the backlog has grown because of the expanded number of claims.

"There are a lot more diagnoses involved than in the past," Bash says." Now veterans are applying for 10-15 claims at a time and each claim is more complicated."

Building the knowledge and skill needed to process claims quickly takes years, he says. But he's hopeful that staff members hired in recent years are now reaching that level of expertise.

"I've noticed recently that the cases are being processed a lot faster," he says.  And, he says the move to an online system is making a difference.

"Vets love using the online E-Benefits and MyHealth portals," he says. "They can read their medical notes online, make appointments and go in and get help."

The Center for Investigative Reporting found that veterans filing for disability wait longer in Los Angeles, than they do in Lincoln, Nebraska.  And they published an interactive map that shows the data from 58 sites around the country.

"The agency tracks and widely reports the average wait time: 273 days," Glantz writes. "But the internal data indicates that veterans filing their first claim, including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wait nearly two months longer, between 316 and 327 days. Those filing for the first time in America's major population centers wait up to twice as long – 642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles and 542 days in Chicago."

So how about Portland and Seattle? Both cities are processing new claims faster than the Los Angeles VA, but more slowly than in many other parts of the country. According to the map, updated on April 1, the average wait in Portland is 317 days but 450 days for first time claimants. In Seattle the average wait is 333 days, but 124 days for first-time claimants.   

Portland VA spokesman, Scott Bond says the agency counts claims that have been filed for more than 125 days as part of the backlog. In Portland currently 8,621 claims are backlogged.

Often those claims are complex and may involve missing records or other problems, Bond says. And about 60 percent of them are from veterans who already are receiving some benefits from earlier claims.

"The numbers change daily," Bond says. "They try to complete the new claims that are easy and get them out of the door. But they also want to complete the older claims where people have been waiting a long time."

The VA maintains it still is on track to end the backlog in 2015. "Many Veterans are returning with severe, more complex injuries, as well as increased demand by our aging veteran population," the agency says in a report. "In addition, we have also righted some old wrongs: Secretary Shinseki made the long overdue decisions to recognize for the first time medical conditions related to Agent Orange, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Gulf War illness – which has led to a nearly a million new claims."

Visit Craig Bash MD's website here

Contact the Portland branch of the National Association of Black Veterans at 503-412-4159

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