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'Tsunami' of appeals drowning VA board won't get better soon

| Saturday, June 1, 2013, 12:08 a.m.

The backlog of cases before the VA's Board of Veterans Appeals will get worse before it gets better because the Washington office is drowning in paperwork, its top official warns.

The second layer of appellate review inside the Department of Veterans Affairs, the board needs more attorneys, more money to pay them and two legislative tweaks to stem a record number of appeals, acting Chairman Stephen L. Keller told the Tribune-Review.

The board's docket at the start of the year contained 45,959 appeals of decisions on initial claims filed at VA field offices, including Pittsburgh, Keller said. That's up from 7,731 cases in 2002.

The VA expects tens of thousands more appeals as it digs out from beneath a mammoth backlog of initial and supplemental claims.

“In order to do the appeals at present, we need more staff. We got a plus-up of $8 million from Congress, and we'll do what we can with that. But based on the projections we have of the anticipated receipts of appeals to the board for the coming years, we're going to have what we call a ‘tsunami' of appeals pouring into the board. And we don't have the resources to deal with them in the time frames veterans are accustomed to,” Keller said.

When honorably discharged veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars file claims today with VA, seeking compensation for wounds, injuries or illnesses incurred while in uniform, they are lining up behind nearly 845,000 vets — the most in the agency's history. The delay of nine months or more for a decision led to heavy criticism of the VA by veterans and members of Congress.

VA vows to reduce that glut radically by 2015, but a Tribune-Review investigation showed the backlogs from those delays dog all three layers of the claim process: regional offices, which make initial rulings; appellate courts at the Board of Veterans Appeals; and above that, the Court of Veterans Appeals.

At VA's regional office in Pittsburgh, for example, former GIs wait nearly two years for decisions on initial claims and another four years if they dispute those decisions in appeals to the board.

With more than $140 billion in annual discretionary and entitlement spending, VA has more employees than any federal agency except the Defense Department. Unlike the Pentagon, however, VA was spared by lawmakers from sequestration spending cuts and employee furloughs. VA recently mandated overtime for those helping to dig out of the backlog.

“If VA has a resource problem, this is certainly the first we're hearing of it,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told the Trib. “It's hard to remember a time when Congress didn't provide the department with everything it has asked for — be it funding, personnel or technology — as evidenced by the fact that VA's budget has increased 40 percent in just the last four years.

“If VA officials doubt the department's ability to adjudicate future claims appeals, it's incumbent upon them to formulate a realistic plan to address the issue and to tell Congress what they need to implement it. So far, they have not done so,” Miller said. “Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Every veteran filing an appeal deserves a thorough, fair and timely evaluation of their case.”

Keller said the appeals board is putting the $8 million boost Congress gave it last year to good use. The board plans to hire 90 attorneys to help the 528 who oversee appeals. He said he'd hire more if he had the money to keep them, because good lawyers affected by the economic slowdown are looking for work.

“Right now,” Keller said, “the job market for attorneys is very good for us, you know?”

The appeals board recently tied into the agency's Veterans Benefits Management System, a paperless computer program that VA believes can help slash the error rate on initial claims, reducing appeals. That can't come too soon: The board estimates it will run out of storage space next year for boxed paper files.

Keller emphasized there's “no magic bullet” to slash wait times on appeals, but he believes two reforms from Congress could help.

Conducting a veteran's default hearings by video conference, instead of requiring personal appearances, would save vets time and taxpayers money because judges would not have to jet from Washington to regional offices, he said. Cutting in half the amount of time veterans have to appeal initial decisions to 180 days is a fix favored by many service organizations aiding vets.

Despite delays, Keller urged veterans to appeal for benefits they earned through their service.

“In your heart, if you're sincere about it, appeal,” he said.

Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or cprine@tribweb.com.

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