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Senators hear complaints about veterans' benefits


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Like that of many veterans, William Kennedy's service in the Vietnam War was not kind. The lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder -- flashbacks, nightmares and depression -- led to a life-threatening coronary artery disease in March 1998.

Kennedy immediately applied for disability benefits with the Veterans' Benefits Administration office in St. Petersburg, complete with full medical records. After his request was denied 14 months later, Kennedy fought to reopen his file, submitting more records and a note from his surgeon. He said his repeated telephone calls were met only with a curt reply that "they would get to it when they got to it."

"It has now been two years and four months since the date of application," said Kennedy, a Tallahassee resident. "They have not assisted me, they have not provided a time frame, they have used the wrong diagnosis and the wrong grounds for denial. Unfortunately, my fate is not unusual."

Kennedy and three other military veterans told their stories to members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday. They were joined by the Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Joseph Thompson as well as representatives of various veterans organizations to discuss long-standing complaints about how the department handles disability claims.

Congressional leaders and veterans' groups have long criticized the department for misdiagnosing ailing veterans, failing to quickly process claims and not returning phone calls to veterans. Many have cited the St. Petersburg office, the only one in Florida, as the archetype of departmental inadequacy.

According to a General Accounting Office report released in May, the office had more than 20,000 claims pending, the most in the nation, and it took an average of 213 days to complete claims. The Department of Veterans Affairs goal is 74 days.

Margaret Macklin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs for Florida veterans, said that the office "has a ways to go" but that it is making strides toward communicating with and serving veterans better. She said backlog problems occurred because administrators spent time training new employees. With their training now complete, she said, the number of claims pending will decrease to between 15,000 and 18,000 over the next six months.

Thompson gave a similar reply to a largely unsympathetic committee.

"What makes you so confident that this will turn around?" said Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "We hear this all the time."

Pushed hard by Rockefeller and Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., to explain his department's poor performance, Thompson acknowledged an inability to reduce the average length of time needed to complete a claim -- currently 170 days. But he added that changes are being implemented and "success will occur very soon."

"We're trying everything in our power, using every resource at our disposal to get this job done," Thompson said. "I promise you this will not fail because people aren't committed to doing it. That will not happen."

"But it is happening," Rockefeller said. He added that if improvements are not made soon he would not be surprised if the entire claims process was privatized.

The procedure for submitting a disability claim is one of the most complicated in the federal government and over the past 20 years the number of disabilities paid for by the department has increased almost 70 percent.

But Macklin disputed the 213-day figure given for average length of time need to complete a claim in Florida. She said that only the most complex claims take that long and that the average claim takes less than 100 days. The average time needed to complete a complex claim should be under 200 days by February, she said.

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