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Knight Ridder Removes Article Highly Critical of VA CHRIS ADAMS AND ALISON YOUNG,
San Luis Obisbo Tribune (California)
Posted 2005-03-04 01:05:00.0http://www.sanluisobispo.com/mld/sanluisobispo/
news/nation/11040334.htmVanishing News: "VA's red tape squelches veterans' long-overdue disability claims"
Ridder investigative reporters Chris Adams and Alison Young wrote a lengthy news article claiming more than 13,000 veterans
died during the past ten years while awaiting word from the Department of Veterans Affairs about their disability benefits.Update:
Knight Ridder releases article 3/6/05
Their investigative news article also profiled several veterans and their problems dealing with VA and provided many
interesting statistics resulting from a lawsuit by Knight Ridder against VA. The article detailed how some veterans' families
may have lost tens of thousands of dollars due to unreasonable delays at VA.
VA Secretary Robert James Nicholson had
no comment about the serious difficulties experienced by veterans uncovered by Knight Ridder.
Unfortunately, the article
vanished from dozens of Knight Ridder newspaper web sites yesterday during the time between when veterans sent links to Veterans
for Common Sense and then VCS staff went to post the news to VCS.
An extensive search of the internet found only "XXXX"
where the text of the article wasl distributed by Knight Ridder at more than one dozen news papers.
The scrubbing of
the article raises very serious questions. Was the publication of the article a mistake? Was Knight Ridder pressured into
retracting the investigation? VCS will follow this news closely.Update (March 4, 2004): VCS has obtained through
one of our members the original text of the article which was purged. Read the original article here:http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org/index.cfm?Page=Article&ID=2913
* IMPORTANT NOTE:
In case the article should vanish as well we include a copy of the original article
in italic - this is not part of the posted article!
-- Knight-Ridder article on VA claims --VA's red tape squelches
veterans' long-overdue disability claims
By Chris Adams and Alison Young (Knight-Ridder news)
thousands of his fellow veterans of America's wars, Alfred Brown died waiting.
In 1945, when he was a 19-year-old soldier
fighting in Italy, a shrapnel from an enemy shell ripped into his abdomen. His wounds were so severe that he was twice administered
last rites. When Brown came home, the government that had promised to care for its wounded veterans instead shorted him.
until 1981, however, did Brown realize that his monthly disability check didn't cover all the injuries he'd suffered. He launched
what would become a 21-year battle.
"As a member of the so-called `Greatest Generation,' I am well aware of the large
numbers of us passing away," he wrote the nation's chief veterans judge in 2001. "I am prepared to meet our Creator. My fear
is that your court will not make a decision in my case."
Brown was right. He died a year later, and his case died with
him. As he closed the books on the case, Judge Kenneth Kramer acknowledged that Brown might have been right all along. Had
Brown not died, the judge wrote, "I believe that the Court would likely have so held."
Tens of thousands of other veterans
have returned from war only to find that they have to fight their own government to win the disability payments they're owed.
A Knight Ridder investigation has found that injured soldiers who petition the U.S.
Department of Veterans Affairs
for those payments are often doomed by lengthy delays, hurt by inconsistent rulings and failed by the veterans representatives
who try to help them.
The investigation is based on interviews with veterans and their families from around the country
and on a review of internal VA documents and computerized databases that had never been released to the public. Many of the
records were made available only after Knight Ridder sued the agency in federal court.
The VA is a mammoth agency that
serves 25 million veterans with a far-flung health care system and a separate disability and pension operation. The agency
spends more than $60 billion a year, at least $20 billion of it on disability compensation.
But the Knight Ridder investigation
found that the VA serves neither taxpayers nor veterans well. Some veterans never get what they're due, while antiquated regulations
mean that others are paid for disabilities that have little effect on their ability to hold jobs or aren't related to their
For America's veterans, plus the thousands of soldiers now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the
investigation identified three points where cases often go wrong: the selection of a special representative called a veterans
service officer, the review by a regional VA office and the filing of an appeal.
Among Knight Ridder's findings:
of the VA-accredited experts who help veterans with their cases receive minimal training and are rarely tested to ensure their
competence. These veterans service officers work for nonprofit organizations such as the American Legion, as well as states
and counties, but their quality is uneven, and that often means the difference between a successful claim and a botched one.
VA's network of 57 regional offices produces wildly inconsistent results, which means that a veteran in St. Paul, Minn., for
example, is likely to receive different treatment and more generous disability checks than one from Detroit.
face lengthy delays if they appeal the VA's decisions. The average wait is nearly three years, and many veterans wait 10 years
for a final ruling. In the past decade, several thousand veterans died before their cases were resolved, according to an analysis
of VA data.
"How a veteran seeking benefits gets treated should not be an accident of geography," said George Basher,
the director of the New York State Division of Veterans' Affairs, one of 50 state agencies that help veterans. "Unfortunately,
the current system makes that a virtual certainty."
In interviews late last year, then-VA Secretary Anthony Principi
and other VA officials admitted to many of the agency's shortcomings, but they said things have gotten better since the Bush
administration took over. "This agency was underwater in 2001," Principi said. "My people have made tremendous progress."
current secretary, Robert James "Jim" Nicholson, who was sworn in recently, had no comment.
There have been some improvements
in the last three years. But when it comes to delays, cases that need to be redone and backlogs, things are the same or worse
than they were in the 1990s, Knight Ridder found, when the agency vowed to clean up its act.
For the family of Kentucky
veteran Alfred Brown, that decade brought nothing but frustration. If a decision had come before he died, Brown could have
been entitled to nearly 45 years of back pay, his attorney said. Based on VA payment rates, that would have been worth about
"It wasn't so much the money," said his son Clayton Brown, on a day when he visited his father's grave north
of Lexington. "He felt he was robbed. He almost gave his life up, and this is what he was getting in return?"
are reminded daily of the pledge by Abraham Lincoln "... to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow
and his orphan."
But the task isn't as simple as it used to be.
The VA makes disability payments for injuries
as obvious as an amputated leg and as complex as post-traumatic stress disorder. They include combat wounds and peacetime
injuries, since veterans are serving their country whether they're in a Humvee in Iraq or in boot camp. Veterans are given
ratings from zero to 100 depending on how severe their disabilities are. Payments for a single veteran range from $108 to
$2,299 a month, and they're supposed to reflect the vet's lost earnings potential.
But, according to the U.S. Government
Accountability Office, the disability payments are based on 60-year-old labor-market assumptions. So veterans who have desk
jobs in today's service and information economy can draw checks based on the fact their disabilities would keep them from
good manufacturing jobs.
The system stems from a time when war injuries were often less complex. Today's soldier faces
mental illnesses unacknowledged two generations ago, as well as wounds that were often fatal in earlier wars.
that are tough fiscal realities. The Congressional Budget Office has already indicated that the VA could save significantly
if it eliminated new payments for certain diseases not connected to military service. While most payments can be linked directly
to service, veterans also can qualify merely if they're diagnosed soon after their military service.
The GAO offered
one example: A Navy veteran was hospitalized with a heart condition three months after his induction. Although the disease
had its inception in childhood, the veteran eventually received disability payments based on the VA's highest rating. In all,
the VA pays nearly $1 billion a year for disabilities that the GAO says generally aren't directly linked to veterans' service
in the military.
Many veterans' cases go bad even before they file claims.
Applying for disability benefits
requires veterans to navigate a labyrinth of bureaucratic rules and unforgiving deadlines. It can require the skill of an
investigator and the mind of a physician.
That's why national veterans groups have for decades provided free help.
About 40 veterans service organizations, such as the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans, are authorized to handle
VA claims, as are many states.
But Knight Ridder found that the network of VA-accredited service officers is a patchwork
of well-meaning helpers whose training and expertise vary widely. Contrary to its own regulations, the VA does little to ensure
that veterans receive competent representation from veterans service organizations. Yet the agency prohibits vets from hiring
their own attorneys until after their claims have been denied and they're generally years into the appeals process.
of the veterans who submit claims use service officers, and picking the right one can determine whether they get the full
payment they're due, a fraction of it or nothing.
"The best advocates can be very good and lousy ones can be awful,"
said Ron Abrams, the joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which trains service officers
for the American Legion and other veterans groups.
New evidence from Washington state illustrates for the first time
the odds veterans face in this service officer roulette.
Since July 2003, the Washington State Department of Veterans
Affairs has tracked the outcome of every claim filed by veterans groups that receive state funding. The groups' success rates
range from 53 percent to 81 percent. Among the busiest individual service officers, those handling 30 or more decided claims,
the success rates can range from 35 percent to 98 percent, the state's data show.
"You might be proud of the fact you
filed 100 claims. But if pretty much everything you filed was denied, it would cause some concern," said John Lee, the department's
The percentage of the Washington groups' claims being granted is on the rise - from about 50 percent
overall when the program began to about 70 percent in recent months. Lee attributes it to the accountability the program requires.
they fought the effort for years, the state's politically powerful veterans groups now see its merit, and they've changed
their training and oversight as a result. The program is "an invaluable tool to see exactly what the strengths and weaknesses
are across the state," said Court Fraley, the Veterans of Foreign Wars state service director.
Veterans officials in
other states said such performance disparities are certain to exist nationally because the training of service officers is
That's not the way it's supposed to be.
The VA, through its national accreditation program,
is supposed to ensure that all service officers are "responsible" and "qualified." But the VA program does little more than
rubberstamp names submitted by veterans groups. About 11,000 service officers are currently on the VA's roster - about 80
percent are accredited through nonprofit groups.
VA regulatory files, obtained after Knight Ridder's lawsuit, reveal
that the agency has done little in decades to determine the adequacy of the training provided by veterans groups or to check
the quality of the claims prepared by their officers. Only rarely does the VA suspend or revoke a service officer's accreditation.
When it does happen, it's generally the result of criminal charges rather than incompetence.
"What we do is take it
on the word of the service organization that the individual has had sufficient training," said Martin Sendek of the VA's general
That training, however, varies widely, according to a Knight Ridder survey of 13 of the largest veterans
groups and all 50 state veterans departments. At one end of the spectrum is Disabled American Veterans, which has full-time
paid national service officers and a 16-month training and testing program that's so regimented that it qualifies for 10 hours
of college credit.
Groups such as American Ex-Prisoners of War and Catholic War Veterans rely largely on part-time
volunteers who aren't required to complete any courses or pass any tests. "We don't get paid, so we're not going to be that
strict with these people," said Doris Jenks, the national training director for American Ex-Prisoners of War.
generally have less stringent requirements for service officers than those working for the 33 state veterans agencies that
responded to the survey.
Just 62 percent of nonprofits and 73 percent of the state agencies require continuing education
for all service officers, something experts consider crucial given the VA's constantly changing rules.
Only 38 percent
of nonprofits and 67 percent of states require a test before recommending that the VA accredit a representative. And once
accredited, few service officers are ever tested to ensure their competence: While 27 percent of the states require later
testing, only one nonprofit, Disabled American Veterans, had that requirement.
VA officials bristled at suggestions
that their oversight of accredited service officers is lax and said they're unaware of any systemic problems. Retired Vice
Adm. Daniel Cooper, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said the VA fixes any mistakes that service officers might make.
If anything needs to be done to make an application complete, Cooper said, "we do it."
General counsel Tim McClain
noted that veterans have extensive appeal rights. "There are a lot of checks and balances in the system," he said.
U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, however, has repeatedly ruled that veterans are out of luck when they've been steered
wrong by VA-accredited service officers.
Ask Gerry Corwin.
As the navigator aboard a B-24 bomber during World
War II, Corwin survived more than 30 missions over Japanese-controlled waters. He came home to Minneapolis with two Air Medals
- and disabling nightmares and flashbacks.
There were images of his buddies burning in planes crashed on runways and
of a friend killed on a mission that Corwin persuaded him to take. By December 1984, those nightmares began to overtake the
Corwin applied for disability benefits and was denied, in part because the VA couldn't find many of his
military records, which had burned in a 1973 fire at a national archive in St. Louis.
So Corwin went to the Minnesota
Department of Veterans Affairs and enlisted the help of Kirk Jones, a service officer who'd become VA-accredited a year earlier
through his state and the American Legion.
Jones submitted a three-sentence letter on Corwin's behalf and didn't take
any steps to prove Corwin's claim. He didn't, for example, push for a psychiatric examination from the VA. He didn't round
up statements from Corwin's crew to corroborate that they'd been sent home in May 1945 for "combat fatigue."
have suggested a VA examination," Jones, who no longer is a service officer, said recently. He acknowledged that he'd had
minimal training when he first handled Corwin's claim.
That 1984 claim went nowhere.
In 1995, Jones, who by
then had gained extensive experience plus classroom training, restarted Corwin's claim. He did all the things he hadn't done
a decade earlier, and more.
This time, Jones helped Corwin win compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder and
a heart problem. Jones filed several appeals, and each time the VA granted more benefits, eventually declaring Corwin totally
disabled in 1998.
Even so, the veterans court ruled last summer that Corwin can't collect back pay from 1984-1995 because
the proper documents weren't Corwin's loss is tens of thousands of dollars, he and his lawyer estimate.
"It would mean
a home. Let's start with that," said Corwin, 82, who with his wife, Katherine, has been living in a house her family owns
in rural Mississippi.
"To have to come back and to fight 20 years to get what you're supposed to be given, and to fight
your own government for it, is disappointing," he said.
Even when a service officer does a good job, veterans' claims
often get bogged down in the VA's 57 regional offices, where veterans' claims are processed.
In electronic age, these
regional offices are a throwback to an ink-and-paper world. In Waco, Texas, the records room is almost the length of a football
field, with row after row of file cabinets - 2,700 in all - containing records that date back six decades.
wheel massive brown folders with rubber bands around them around on carts, shifting them from one table to the next as they
move through the approval process. In the constant shuffle of paper, things get lost and mistakes get made.
errors are made in 13 percent of claims, more than three times the agency's hoped-for rate of 4 percent, according to a VA
quality-control database that reviews a sample of the decisions. That translates to 103,000 errors a year; in many cases they
can result in either an overpayment or an underpayment of benefits.
"I don't think anybody is proud of the fact that
we have" a 13 percent error rate, said Michael Walcoff, who oversees the agency's regional offices. Errors often trigger appeals,
sending thousands of veterans into an ongoing cycle of mistakes, appeals, rehearings,mistakes, appeals, rehearings.
some regional offices, the error rate last year was far worse - as high as 23 percent in Wilmington, Del. (The low was 3 percent,
in Des Moines, Iowa.) And such varied performances affect nearly every aspect of a veteran's experience:
of all types of claims that are approved ranges from 89 percent in St. Paul to less than 70 percent in Jackson, Miss., and
Cheyenne, Wyo., according to an annual VA survey of veterans. Perhaps not surprisingly, "satisfaction" among veterans is highest
in St. Paul, at 73 percent, compared with 50 percent in Atlanta. Knight Ridder found that disability ratings, which determine
the size of a veteran's monthly check, also vary widely.
An analysis of 3.4 million veterans claims shows that major
mental ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia, are subject to bigger regional swings than major
physical ailments such as bad backs and knees. For example, veterans with PTSD assigned to the Wilmington office are more
likely to have the highest disability rating than their counterparts in Lincoln, Neb. In Delaware, 34 percent of those with
PTSD have the highest rating; in Lincoln, it's 10 percent.
Diagnosing mental disorders is more subjective, and parts
of the country have been slow to recognize them. Different training standards in the past may also have contributed to regional
Because the major psychiatric disabilities on average pay more than the major physical ones, the wider
swings have a dramatic impact on veterans' payments. The different ratings may help explain a puzzle noticed by veterans every
time the VA releases its annual report:
Average disability checks vary by state.
The VA wouldn't comment on
Knight Ridder's analysis but said in a statement that it's investigating regional differences, which it attributed to "extremely
complex" factors. The agency "is committed to treating every veteran's claim fairly and equitably" and has nationwide training
programs to help eliminate uneven treatment.
The GAO last year reported that the VA "cannot provide reasonable assurance
that similarly situated veterans who submit claims for the same impairment to different regional offices receive reasonably
The final minefield is the VA appeals system, where claims often linger.
It's a problem
the VA recognizes. "It takes too long. We all agree on that," said Ron Garvin, acting chairman of the Board of Veterans' appeals.
the average disability payment now $7,860 a year, back-benefit awards can be substantial because an award is calculated as
though the VA made the right decision when the claim was first filed. Some veterans with severe disabilities win $100,000
But if a veteran dies with his or her case under appeal, the case dies, too. In the past decade, more than
13,700 veterans died while heir cases were in some stage of the appeals process, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of
a VA appeals records database. (While precise estimates aren't available, the VA said experience suggests a few thousand of
them wouldn't have actively pursued their appeals.)
Even if a veteran wins a case but dies before receiving payment,
his family is often out of luck. Unless the veteran had an eligible spouse or dependent child, the money stays in the U.S.
George Wilkes, a World War II sailor, spent the last five years of his life fighting to increase his disability
rating, which stemmed from a spinal cord injury. In April 1997, the VA agreed with him and said he was due back benefits of
Wilkes, ill with pneumonia, died four days later. Six days after that, the VA wired the money into his bank
Once the VA realized Wilkes had died, it wouldn't let his family keep the money. Although he had no immediate
family, Wilkes' nephew and niece had tended to him for years, allowing him to stay in his New Orleans home.
money come years earlier, it "would have had a substantial impact on his life," said nephew Ray Wilkes of Covington, La. "His
house was pretty deplorable and was deteriorating. But he was determined to live on his own."
In an October interview,
then-Secretary Principi said he was "stung" when he learned a few years ago how common it is for veterans to die with their
cases in limbo. While some deaths are inevitable, given the VA's elderly clientele, "it's not acceptable," he said. "We need
to do something about it."
He also suggested that a recently formed commission on benefits could reconsider the legal
barriers that prevent heirs other than a wife or dependent child from receiving a deceased veteran's back benefits.
VA has admitted that its processes are too slow and too prone to errors. And veterans have told the agency that they suspect
the worst: that the agency is "just stalling, waiting for them to die so the claim won't have to be paid," veterans said in
focus groups in 1995.
But the agency has repeatedly ignored recommendations to eliminate edundant steps in the process
to speed things up. One exhaustive review, completed in 1996, declared the entire claims and appeals rocess "cumbersome and
outmoded" and in need of an overhaul.
Since then, "I think things are basically the same," said the agency's Walcoff.
"I wouldn't say that we have changed the system in any major way."
In fact, VA data show that delays and the percentage
of cases being sent back for re-hearings are basically unchanged since the agency vowed to reduce them.
In the mid-1990s,
about the time it promised to speed things up, the VA also denied Berlie Bowman's claim.
Bowman had gone to Vietnam
in 1967, an outgoing kid following in his father's military footsteps. "When he was drafted, he went without a fuss," said
his sister Paulette. "He was a different person when he came back."
He was skittish, quick to anger, uneasy in crowds.
The family trod warily around him - "learned to wake him from a distance by touching his feet with something," his VA file
said. Over three decades, he ran through 30 jobs; he lived in a small trailer on a curvy North Carolina road.
disability claim, in 1971 for "nerves," was denied. His second try, in 1995, met a similar fate.
But that time, Bowman
Working with an attorney, he assembled evidence to show that he had post-traumatic stress disorder and
to document that it had started in Vietnam. The case wound up and down the system, receiving six different rulings, until
Bowman fell ill with pancreatic cancer.
On June 16, 2004, the Board of Veterans' Appeals finally agreed with Bowman's
claim. It declared that "credible supporting evidence" showed that Bowman suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder caused
by his time in Vietnam, just as Bowman had contended for nine years.
Bowman's attorney immediately pestered the VA
for Bowman's back benefits, dating to 1995. By then, Bowman's cancer treatment had been stopped.
On June 21, attorney
Dan Krasnegor or his assistant talked with the VA every two hours. On June 22, they were told that the official disability
rating was complete and that only final signatures were needed before Bowman's check for $53,784 could be cut. "Oh, it's in
the computer system," they were told.
Berlie Bowman died that night, and his claim died with him. No check was sent.
his burial, Bowman's mother accepted a smartly folded American flag from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Seventeen old soldiers
stood in formation in the rain. A bugler played taps; riflemen splintered the silence with a three-gun salute.
march of our comrade Berlie Bowman is over," intoned the VFW's chaplain.
Editors: The following copy block describes
the VA's goals for claims processing:
The VA has repeatedly reset its goals for how efficiently it handles veterans'
claims. One of its critical measures is the time necessary to decide an initial claim for disability benefits. At one time
in the mid-1990s, the VA had a long-term goal to process claims in 60 days. It later increased that to 74 days, and then to
90 days. Average processing time instead ballooned to 223 days by 2002 before coming down slightly.
Last spring, the
VA told Congress it was "on track" to reach a processing time of 100 days by the end of 2004. It didn't reach that target;
today, the actual time stands at 165 days.
The agency recently changed its long-term goal again, to 125 days.
increased goals, the VA said, are due to changes in the law and the nature of claims currently being received.
(from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): VETERANS
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): VETERANS
on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail.
2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Copyright 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services
Knight Ridder Washington
-- End of insertion --
VCS provides links below so veterans and supporters can see the article actually existed but is no longer available.
replicate this search, go to "Google," enter "Chris Adams" and "VA," and then search news. More than one dozen links will
appear with the headline," VA's red tape squelches veterans' long-overdue disability claims.
Then try to click on any
of the links provided by Google. Instead of the article, readers will discover "XXXX" and a posting date of March 3, 2005.
The text below is all that remains of the article when searches are conducted at each specific Knight Ridder newspaper:http://www.charlotte.com/mld/charlotte/search/
&sitesToSearch=charlotte%2Cobserver%2Crealcities&pageSize=10&fieldsToSearch=HEADLINE%2CFORSEARCH%2CLEAD%2CBYLINE%queryType=all&searchSelect=article&query=Chris+adamsDRY RIDGE, Ky. - Like thousands of his fellow veterans of America's wars, Alfred Brown died waiting. In 1945,
when he was a 19-year-old soldier fighting in Italy, shrapnel from an enemy shell ripped into his abdomen. His wounds were
so severe that he was twice administered last rites. When Brown came home, the government that had promised to care for its
wounded veterans instead shorted him.
Here are links to other Knight Ridder newspapers where the article vanished:The Tribune San Luis Obispo, CAThe Telegraph Macon Macon, GAGrand Forks Herald Grand Forks, NDThe Herald Bradenton, FL