by Aaron Glantz, The Bay Citizen
After seven months of delay, the Department of Veterans Affairs finally approved World War II veteran James Alderson’s pension benefits last week.
But it was not a cause for celebration or relief for Alderson, whose life’s work was the farm supply store he founded near Chico after returning home from the Battle of the Bulge.
The 89-year-old veteran had died three months earlier in a Yuba City nursing home.
“My father was a very proud person,” Alderson’s son, Kale, said. “Whenever I saw him, he would ask if I’d heard from the VA and whether his money would hold up. It really took a toll on him.”
The VA’s inability to pay benefits to veterans before they die is increasingly common, according to data obtained by The Bay Citizen. The data reveals, for the first time, that long wait times are contributing to tens of thousands of veterans being approved for disability benefits and pensions only after it is too late for the money to help them.
In the fiscal year that ended in September, the agency paid $437 million in retroactive benefits to the survivors of nearly 19,500 veterans who died waiting. The figures represent a dramatic increase from three years earlier, when the widows, parents and children of fewer than 6,400 veterans were paid $7.9 million on claims filed before their loved one’s death.
These veterans range from World War II veterans like Alderson who die of natural causes without their pensions to Iraq war veteran Scott Eiswert, who committed suicide after his disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder was denied.
The ranks of survivors waiting for these benefits also have surged, from fewer than 3,000 in December 2009 to nearly 13,000 this month.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the data confirmed the worst fears of many veterans and members of Congress.
“The common refrain we hear from many veterans is, ‘Delay, deny, wait till I die,’ ” said Miller, who called the burgeoning backlog of benefits claims a “national embarrassment.”
Nationwide, about 900,000 veterans and their families have been waiting about nine months for a decision on their claims, with those in America’s major urban areas waiting the longest. As of October, the most recent month for which numbers are available, the average wait time for a veteran was 15 months in Chicago, 16 months in New York and a year and a half in Los Angeles.
But in a conference call with The Bay Citizen, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, VA officials said that while the long delays generally were unacceptable, the growth in posthumous payments was not disturbing.
“It’s a good thing that the VA pays benefits to honor the service of veterans and the sacrifices of their family members despite the fact that a veteran has unfortunately died,” said Dave McLenachen, director of the agency’s pension and fiduciary service.
Some veteran advocates say the number of survivors being approved for retroactive payments represents a fraction of the veterans who die waiting because grieving families must file paperwork with the agency to keep a claim from expiring with the veteran.
“You’re just so exhausted and drained with the grief of losing a loved one that sometimes it’s hard just to wake up in the morning, let alone navigate a complicated bureaucracy,” said Bonnie Carroll, founder of the Washington-based nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
A White House liaison to the VA under President George W. Bush, Carroll serves on the agency’s Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation, which helps the VA draft rules governing disability benefits.
“It’s beyond tragic,” Carroll said. When a veteran dies without his or her benefits, she said, families face not only the financial burden of medical bills and burial costs, but also emotional distress from the “loss of connection to the military that their loved one served and sacrificed for.”
Delays tied to Agent Orange
In November, more than a year after Vietnam veteran John Conrad died of leukemia, the VA sent his widow a letter acknowledging his cancer was caused by exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
The decision marked a reversal for the agency, which had denied Conrad’s claim for disability benefits for three years while the former Army specialist was still alive. The denials had come despite supporting medical opinions from a series of doctors, including the VA’s own oncologist.
“He was incredibly sick for so long, but their response was always the same,” Linda Conrad said in an interview at her home outside Phoenix. “We went through our savings and our retirement money. And then, after he died, they said they made a mistake and sent a check for $79,000. We could have used that money to keep him alive.”
By the time the VA reversed itself, the family home was in foreclosure. Linda Conrad, who had quit her job as a paralegal to care for her husband during his last days, found her efforts to secure a new job thwarted by the recession.
Yet, in an interview, the VA deemed John Conrad’s saga a success.
“The decisions made in his lifetime were not erroneous,” said Brad Flohr, assistant director for policy of the VA’s compensation service. But, he added, the more experienced claims processors who handled Conrad’s claim after his death had the authority to reinterpret the medical evidence.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to work, and it did in his case,” Flohr said.
VA officials say the agency’s changing stance on Agent Orange claims is a major catalyst for the rise in posthumous payments. In 2010, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki issued a ruling granting benefits to 158,000 Vietnam veterans who suffered from ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and two types of cancer – neither the kind of leukemia that killed John Conrad – that the agency previously had denied were caused by Agent Orange.
Officials said that decision, a response to a federal court ruling in Northern California, was responsible for about half of the payouts in 2012. Over the past six years, the VA has paid benefits to the survivors of more than 54,000 veterans who died waiting, with about a quarter of those claims tied to the court decision on Agent Orange. McLenachen said most of those claims now have been cleared.
McLenachen attributed the threefold increase in the number of veterans who died awaiting disability and pension benefits to a different phenomenon: a 2008 law that streamlined the ability for survivors to petition the agency for compensation instead of forcing them to file a new claim.
That explanation doesn’t resonate with members of Congress who have been increasingly frustrated with the delays veterans face in obtaining benefits.
“It’s not plausible,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat and ranking member of the House subcommittee that oversees the VA’s benefits bureaucracy. Even under the old system, McNerney said, survivors regularly filed claims for benefits that veterans had requested before they died.
“If you take them out of line and put them back in line again, they’re still going to be in line,” he said.
Errors compound delays
Veteran advocates and family members of veterans who died waiting accuse the VA of callous indifference in denying legitimate benefits claims and deluging families with paperwork even as loved ones slip away. Chronic mistakes add to a feeling of abandonment.
A Bay Citizen analysis of 18 reports published this year by the VA’s inspector general revealed auditors found mistakes in more than 1 in 3 high-profile claims they reviewed. In 2011, the Board of Veterans Appeals found errors in 73 percent of cases it decided, according to the board’s annual report.
“The VA has a problem with errors and that lengthens the process and increases the chance that a veteran will die waiting,” said Bart Stichman, co-director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides legal assistance to veterans and their families.
Iraq war veteran Scott Eiswert “gave up on life” after receiving a February 2008 letter from the VA denying his claim for post-traumatic stress disorder for the third time, according to his widow, Tracy. Three months later, the 31-year-old Tennessee National Guardsman shot himself in the head.
Then, in August 2008, the VA reversed itself, sending Tracy Eiswert a letter stating that it “was clearly and unmistakably in error” for failing to grant her husband’s disability claim. The agency sent a check for more than $10,000 to cover the disability benefits Scott Eiswert should have received while he was alive. The VA also deemed his suicide related to his military service, entitling his widow to a $1,195 monthly survivor’s benefit.
“I was relieved to get the check, but if they would have done their job and given him the help he needed immediately, maybe this wouldn’t have happened,” Tracy Eiswert said.
‘Shocking but not surprising’
Rich Dumancas, The American Legion’s deputy director for claims, said it is common these days for Korean War or World War II veterans to come forward and ask for assistance in old age, only to be forced to wait until after they die.
VA officials argue that as the population ages, it is only natural that a percentage of veterans will die while their claim is pending. But Dumancas considers it symptomatic of a broken process.
“It’s shocking but not surprising,” Dumancas said of the soaring numbers.
After James Alderson applied for subsidized nursing home care from the VA for himself and his 90-year-old wife, two months passed with little communication from the agency.
On July 12, Alderson received a form letter stating that while “it is our sincere desire to decide your case promptly … as we have a great number of claims, action on yours may be delayed.”
Over the next two months, two more letters followed apologizing for the delay. Then, on Oct. 4, nine days after Alderson died, the VA mailed him a letter asking him to resubmit documents substantiating his military service and providing proof that he lived in a nursing home.
A month after that, another letter arrived from the VA’s Pension Management Center.
“We received new information from the Social Security Administration, showing Mr. Alderson passed away on Sept. 25, 2012,” the letter read. “Based on this notice we have stopped processing his claim for VA benefits. Please accept our sincere condolences.”
To his son, who had to file a new petition, this last missive was the ultimate disgrace.
“It takes them months to grant a claim from an elderly man,” Kale Alderson said, choking back tears, “but they can close a case in a matter of weeks.”
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.