Shutdown Adding to Vet Appeals Backlog

Stacks of VA claims.

About two weeks ago former Marine Cpl. John M. Super learned that the Department of Veterans Affairs would likely make a decision on his disability claims appeal "sometime in 2014."

Then came Tuesday and the start of the federal shutdown after Congress failed to pass a budget or continuing resolution for fiscal year 2014. Non-essential federal operations to including VA appeals decisions have been temporarily halted as a result.

"So now I'm thinking maybe in 2015" for a ruling, Super told on Wednesday.

Super's expected delay is owed to the fact the VA's appeals board will not process or make decisions on appeals as long as the shutdown is in effect. While processing of first-time claims will continue -- albeit slowed because overtime money is being lost in the shutdown -- disability appeals have just frozen.

Making things worse, according to a lawyer whose firm represents many vets with appeals, these men and women already on average wait longer for a decision than first-time claims applicants.

"More than 250,000 veterans with claim appeals have already waited an average of four years for VA to decide their appealed claim, and it is unacceptable that our veterans will be forced to wait even longer [because of the shutdown delays]," said Glenn Bergmann, a former VA lawyer whose firm, Bergmann & Moore, LLC, handles disability claim appeals.

"During a shutdown, veterans and their attorneys won't be able to learn the status of claim appeals or have hearings," Bergmann said.

The VA's disability claims backlog has been widely criticized but also aggressively attacked by the agency, which in the past year has increased staff and overtime for claims processing. As of mid-August, the VA said the backlog -- those claims still pending after 125 days -- was down to about 490,000 out of some 773,000.

A senior VA official said Tuesday the total was now down 30 percent, though warned that progress stands to be lost because of the shutdown.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has said the VA will end its backlog -- that represented by first-time applicants, that is -- by 2015, the year Super now anticipates getting a decision on the appeal he filed in 2011.

Super, who deployed to Iraq in 2005 and remained for an extended tour, developed prominent metatarsal heads  -- painful and returning calluses on both feet. The condition is painful, makes it difficult to walk and run, and the calluses need to be removed periodically.

After separating from the Marine Corps in 2009 he applied for a VA disability and was ultimately awarded disability with a zero rating, which means the VA recognized the condition was service-related, but offered no financial compensation.

He appealed in 2011 and finally got a hearing on his appeal claim in January 2013.

"At some point in the process I was told it shouldn't take any more than six months. So I started calling after that [time]," he said.

During one call to a VA office in Washington, he said he kept pressing for some idea of when a decision would be made. Not only did the VA employee not give him an answer, she hung up, Super recalled.

"No one is ever going to convince me that the VA is looking out for my interest," he said. "And now with this government shutdown, this is just giving them more of an excuse for their bad behavior."

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Budget VA Claims and Appeals