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Altman: VA’s calculation of outstanding claims questioned

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Published:   |   Updated: March 9, 2014 at 10:06 PM

From their home in New Port Richey, Lauren and Jim Price have been waging a battle against the Veterans Administration, which they say is an overtaxed system that is not responsive to the needs of those who have served.

Last year, Lauren Price, a disabled Navy petty officer first class on the retirement list and her husband, Jim, a retired Navy senior chief created an organization called Veteran Warriors. The mission is to “overhaul the VA,” says Lauren Price, who has a 100 percent VA disability rating for lung and hand ailments as the result of her service in Iraq.

Last week, the group issued what it calls its “Wasteful Wednesday Morning Report,” a response to the VA’s weekly “Monday Morning Workload Report,” an online accounting of the number of benefits claims pending.

At issue, says Lauren Price, is how the VA is presenting its numbers and how lawmakers, the media and the public are perceiving the problem.

All told, there are about 1.7 million veterans waiting for benefits claims of all types, according to the Prices’ accounting, which is based on the numbers provided by the VA. It’s a figure the Prices and the VA agree on.

So what’s the big deal?

Perception, say the Prices.

The main focus, by the VA, lawmakers and the media, has been on a portion of that — the number of new claims that have been filed.

The most recent VA weekly report lists 66,580 such cases pending, with nearly 60 percent of those 125 days or older, which is considered backlog.

That backlog has gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so.

But the real problem faced by veterans, say the Prices, is much bigger, yet the general public doesn’t realize it.

Just last week, a bipartisan group of senators called the VA Claims Backlog Working Group released its report on the troubles faced by the VA. While the 47-page document is a sweeping report and covers the wide range of problems facing the VA, it too keys in on the new claims backlog.

“Today, nearly 400,000 men and women who served our nation in the Armed Services are waiting more than 125 days to receive disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” the report’s introduction reads. “These Veterans have sacrificed for our country. That is why [VA] Secretary [Eric] Shinseki promised our Veterans that they would wait no longer than 125 days to receive a decision on their claim. Some have very critical injuries, and the wait experienced to adjudicate their claims far exceeds the nation’s expectation.”

There is no quibble with that. But the problem is much deeper, the Prices argue, especially when it comes to those claims that are appealed and those claims that have taken so long to process that the veteran has died before benefits were awarded — both of which are on the rise.

“They’re not lying,” says Lauren Price, who has a team of four people crunching the VA’s own numbers to provide her reports. “The VA is being disingenuous.”

The Prices are not alone.

“VA lacks the required training and staffing at regional offices to decide all veterans’ claims in a timely and accurate manner,” says Joe Moore, a former VA attorney who now represents veterans with disability claim appeals as a partner at Bergmann & Moore. “As a result of short staffing and poor training, VA focuses primarily on new claims, and that means accrued benefits claims, dependency claims, and appeals continue piling up higher and languishing longer. VA’s delays mean that 53 veterans die every day waiting on VA, causing more accrued and substitution claims to be filed. In addition, VA’s frequent mistakes mean that appealed claims have risen 62 percent since January 2009 to a new record high of 272,000. VA’s chronic failures are unacceptable — all veterans’ claims should be treated fairly, and they deserve a prompt and accurate disability claim decision from VA.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars takes the same tact, arguing in its blog last month that “To the VFW, adding in all appeals and claims from all sources, to include GI Bill education claims, brings VA’s total workload to 1.7 million claims, or almost three times VA’s admitted workload of 600,000 claims in the system.”

I asked Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, his take how these numbers are being presented.

“It’s difficult to tell whether the numbers they are putting out now are true and real numbers,” Miller told me last week. The VA “changed the metric by which they measured them . The unfortunate thing with all the push over the last year to bring the numbers down, it doesn’t mean the veterans themselves are satisfied with the adjudication or the rating they got.”

And that, says Miller, means they appeal, thus they “go off the VA books and are no longer considered backlogged if they are going to the Veterans Board of Appeals. I would like the VA be open and transparent. Let’s try to solve this together. We are all trying to accomplish the same goal — get the veterans the benefits they deserve as quickly as possible.”

The Veterans Benefits Administration says that the changes in the way it reports its numbers are because it “continues to add metrics, not remove them,” said VA spokeswoman Genevieve Billia. “The same information that was available in the 2009 version of the [VA’s online report] is available in the current version which is why the Veteran Warriors group was able to generate their analysis across multiple years.

“When VBA discusses claims inventory in the media, we and most of our stakeholders are discussing this group of claims directly associated with an original or supplemental claim to disability compensation or pension,” says Billia. “This group of claims we collectively describe as the ‘Rating Bundle.’ ... The Veterans Warriors’ group graphics are accurate when it comes to displaying the entire universe of requests and claims from Veterans as they appear to be drawn from the [VA online report]. However, VBA has been and continues to focus on production to reduce the claims inventory for the Rating Bundle — the backlog — as those claims directly determine a Veteran’s entitlement to benefits.”

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I caught up with Miller on Friday at the Armed Forces Military Museum in Largo. He was in town to support fellow Republican David Jolly in his campaign against Democrat Alex Sink to replace Bill Young. As I told Jolly, I wasn’t there to see him or to cover any campaign events, as that is out of my lane. I wanted to take a rare opportunity to see Miller, who represents the Panhandle and is also a member of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence.

Was there a failure of intelligence to read Vlad Putin’s intentions in Ukraine, where there are 20,000 Russian troops, according to the Pentagon?

“It didn’t take somebody in the intelligence world to begin to project that Putin might be moving toward doing what he is doing in Crimea,” says Miller. “He did it in Georgia a few years ago, right after the Olympics. The timing is suspect. Again, we should have known more and certainly been prepared for what is going on.”

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The Department of Defense announced the deaths of two troops last week.

* Master Sgt. David L. Poirier, 52, of North Smithfield, R.I., died Feb. 28, from a noncombat related incident that is under investigation. He was assigned to the 157th Operations Support Squadron, Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H.

* Lance Cpl. Caleb L. Erickson, 20, of Waseca, Minn., died Feb. 28, during combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

There have now been 2,302 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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