by Kristina Derro
Veterans Disability Lawyer
This month, the VA’s Office of Inspector General released its report on the systemic issues identified at 16 VA Regional Offices (VAROs) from April 2009 to September 2010. You can view the full report here: http://www.va.gov/oig/52/reports/2011/VAOIG-11-00510-167.pdf
Unfortunately, the report revealed the ineptitude that all the veterans experience and suffer from on a daily basis. The report identified that VARO staff incorrectly processed 23% of an estimated 45,000 claims. The biggest mistakes involved claims for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
Over 8% of claims for PTSD were not adequately processed because the VARO staff “lacked sufficient experience and training to process these claims accurately. Additionally, some VAROs were not conducting monthly quality assurance reviews”. The bulk of the errors were in failing to properly verify claimed stressors and assigning incorrect effective dates for the grant of benefits for PTSD.
75% of VAROs inspected did not follow VA policy when processing claims for residuals of a TBI. In December 2009, it was estimated that 28,000 veterans suffered from a TBI, with many more being added to that list daily with the increase of bombings and IED attacks that our military is exposed to in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Inspector General’s findings regarding the VAROs’ incompetence in processing these claims can have disastrous effects for our veterans. Over 19% of claims for TBIs were not processed correctly. The report found that 42% of the errors were due to the VARO staff utilizing inadequate medical examinations which did not contain sufficient information upon which to make a decision. Evidently, the VA medical examiners were not using the most current examination formats and therefore not providing the VARO staff with sufficient information. Unfortunately, due to the VAROs staff’s lack of experience and training, they did not recognize when an examination was inadequate and failed to send it back to the VA examiner for corrections.
Compounding this problem is the fact that when the VARO actually did grant service connection for a TBI, 42% of errors involved the VARO assigning incorrect evaluations for the residuals of TBIs. The VA policy requires a separate evaluation for any disability with a distinct diagnosis related to a TBI, such as headaches or tinnitus. Regrettably, VARO staff failed to give separate ratings for disabilities and instead lumped them together in one rating.
A statistic which will come as no big surprise to any veteran that has sent information to VA is the fact that the report found 75% of the VAROs failed to properly control and process mail according to VA policy. Shockingly, the majority of mistakes were attributed to the staff being “generally unaware of policy requirements, including date stamping, governing mail processing at VA facilities. Further, VARO workload management plans contained unclear procedures or first-line supervisors did not always follow guidance delineated in these plans”. The failure to properly date-stamp materials obviously has catastrophic effects on a veteran’s claim. For instance, the document may be considered to be untimely, even though it was timely submitted but the VARO staff failed to properly date stamp it. Additionally, if a claim came in on January 31st, then the start date for benefits when the claim is ultimately granted would be February 1st. However, if the item isn’t date stamped until February 1st, then the start date for benefits would be March 1st. This would cause the veteran to lose out on a month of benefit payments.
An interesting read for sure, the report details the mistakes that the 16 VAROs made, along with the Inspector General’s suggestions for improvement. All we can do is wait and see if VA actually gets around to implementing the suggestions. Until then, veterans’ claims continue to be improperly handled on a daily basis…