Vets must fight VA for benefits

SEBRING Eldridge Butler wears a black WWII-Korean cap. Between his $411 Social Security check and his $570 veteran’s pension, the former mechanic doesn’t have enough income to pay bills. “I ain’t even bought groceries in three weeks,” said Butler, who lives in a mobile home park west of Walgreen’s in south Sebring. Harry Meyers, who also lives in a mobile home near Spring Lake, is disappointed that the Veteran’s Administration keeps upping the means-test criteria for veterans.
“It’s not really fair what they’re doing to the serviceman,” said Meyers. “When I reenlisted in Japan in 1955, they told me that I would be able to use the service hospital free for the rest of my life.” After he was injured by Hurricane Charlie in 2004, blood clots attacked his lungs. Today, Meyers carries a portable oxygen bottle just to breathe. “It don’t matter about me. I’m not going to live too much longer anyway. I don’t need the VA benefits. I got Medicare. I don’t have a service-related injury. I just think the VA ought to keep their promises,” Meyers said. Despite Secretary Eric Shinseki’s pledge to fix the Department of Veteran Affairs disabilities claim system by 2015, problems have gotten worse. Claims now take 272 days – on average – to be processed, and that’s a 40 percent increase, according to the VA’s own internal report. Some claims linger as long as a year. Even worse, the national error rate is 14 percent. The Baltimore Sun recently reported the error rate is 26 percent in the Maryland office. An OIG inspection of the Detroit office said staff did not accurately process 31 of 60 disability claims reviewed. And much worse, with a backlog of 900,000 cases, 53 veterans die each day waiting for their benefits, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. An average 22 veterans committed suicide every day in 2010, the VA study said. That’s two more per day than 2007. While VA spokesman Randy Noller told The Daily Beast in February that the department can live up to Shinseki’s pledge, the four Veterans Benefits Administration regional offices where a new computer system was deployed found it took even longer to process claims than the old paper system. “Veterans are justifiably frustrated at the deteriorating claims crisis, especially the lack of planning to fix it,” Paul Sullivan, a longtime veterans' advocate and director of veteran outreach at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that focuses solely on veteran disability issues, told the Daily Beast. A tracking map from the Center for Investigative Reporting says nearly 50,000 claims are backlogged at the St. Petersburg regional office, where Highlands County veterans file; 34,458 of those claimants have waited 125 days or longer. The average wait time is 304 days. “If you own an RV, a camper or a boat, you can’t qualify,” Meyers said. “You almost have to be on Medicaid.” A letter from the VA said Meyers should reveal if he has wages, unemployment, worker’s compensation, a Social Security check, interest, dividends, stock, bonds, capital gains, gambling or lottery winnings, profits from a farm or ranch or book royalties. “It’s just the idea of it,” Meyers said, “what they’re doing to vets like me. I guess I could beg them, but I didn’t think I had to beg them. I’m not a rich person; I’m living off social security. Me and my wife both are disabled.” Butler shows a Sept. 27 letter written on his behalf by Jackie Graham, then the acting Highlands County Veteran’s Service Officer. “I have contacted the Philadelphia Pension Processing Department, and they have assured me they could have his claim completed no later than Dec. 1, 2012. At which time Mr. Butler will be approved for either $1,021 or $1,703 per month.” One check came on Dec. 12 for $1,126, another on Dec. 31 for $570. Then they stopped. “I’m going to lose my house,” Butler said. “I’m two months behind.”

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