PDT Staff Writer
Diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and recovering from two shoulder surgeries as a result of his service in the Vietnam war, Charles Hooker of Hamilton had to wait 5 ½ years to get his full disability benefit from the U.S. government.
“I first got my Social Security Disability in 84 days, and they used the same records off my VA,” Hooker, 55, said in a telephone conference call with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and members of the news media Wednesday. “I was first turned down. And I appealed it to Washington. They kicked it back to Huntington, West Virginia, and a span of 5 1/2 years is what it took me to get my full 100 percent compensation.”
“Charles, like many of the 800,000 plus Ohio veterans, receives earned benefits for the sacrifice he made to keep our country safe,” Brown said. “But he had to reach out to my office to cut through the red tape at the VA.”
Now, in advance of Memorial Day — and with 25,000 pending disability claims filed by Ohio veterans — Brown has offered a new bill, The Veterans Services Outreach Act, to reduce the backlog. Brown said the new bill that would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to notify Ohio veterans and their caregivers of assistance available to them in filing for VA benefits electronically. As of March 2012, Ohio veterans are awaiting decisions on 25,226 claims — 70 percent of which have been pending for more than 125 days. According to the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, the Ohio backlog is projected to increase by 17 percent in the next four months alone.
Brown said the good news is that more veterans are getting in touch with the VA. He said the department has seen a 40 percent increase in claims since 2008. Last year, VA processed 1 million claims from the nation’s veterans, but 1.3 million new claims were submitted to the VA.
“Too many times these claims are backlogged. Right now the VA has a staggering backlog of some 900,000 disability claims — more than 25,000 from Ohio alone,” Brown said. “Veterans are left waiting, veterans who are seeking assistance to deal with service-connected injuries. Whether it’s mental health, whether it’s assistance in getting disability benefits, or educational or employment support, too many vets have to experience excessive response delays from the VA.”
Brown said because of understaffing and technology issues, the backlog has delayed or prevented veterans from receiving the benefits they have earned. He said Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) exist in all 88 Ohio counties, but many Ohioans are unaware of their services or that they can provide critical assistance to veterans struggling to compile and present paperwork necessary to file for service-connected disability benefits. Brown said his bill would alert veterans to trusted third-party advocates, like VSOs, that can help veterans assemble detailed, accurate and complete claims that are more likely to be processed quickly–shrinking the current backlog.
“If Mr. Hooker was just coming back from Vietnam, and this was 30 years ago, and he filed for disability, immediately the VA would be required, if this (The Veterans Services Outreach Act) was the law, to let him know about the various veterans service organizations — whether it’s the private groups, like the American Legion and the VFW, or the county Veterans Service Organization, and the services and benefits available to him,” Brown said.
Kimberly Dennewitz, office manager for the Scioto County Veterans Service Office, said she wants all returning veterans to be aware of the services available at the SCVSO.
“We are very busy, but I don’t ever like to make people wait,” Dennewitz said. “We can file any claims they need to file with the Department of Veterans Affairs. We have the Emergency Assistance Fund, which is Scioto County money, for veterans. It is a re-adjustment period when members of the military come back, and it is true that the Department of Veterans Affairs is backed up. One of the things I try to do is file complete claims. If you file a claim with the VA and you’re missing documents, it just slows it up. And by filing the complete claim, it just saves a lot of back and forth letters.”
Dennewitz said she is in her office Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and anyone needing information can call 740-353-1477.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or at email@example.com.