At least 350,000 veterans of wars before those in Iraq and Afghanistan have outstanding appeals of benefits decisions, according to VA records.
Meanwhile the VA has touted how much it has cut the backlog of benefits claims that have taken longer than 125 days to resolve from 611,000 in 2013 to 344,000 in April.
Progress in resolving initial benefits claims has come at the expense of settling older claims, said Glenn Bergmann, a former VA attorney who now fights veterans' appeals cases at Bergmann & Moore LLC.
"They pull all the back-of-the-line guys to front, but they stole from Peter to pay Paul, and these veterans have been abandoned again," Bergmann said. "They're dying while they're waiting."
The time it takes the agency to handle claims or treat patients at its hospitals has come under more intense scrutiny following the reports that some veterans died while awaiting care at VA hospitals and that some hospital administrators altered documents to make the delays look shorter than they really were.
Walinda West, a VA spokeswoman, said a simple appeals case takes an average of 562 days, but each supplemental piece of evidence can extend that delay by another 200 days.
Bergmann said veterans appeal their cases after they are told their medical conditions were not caused by military service. That often includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or respiratory cancer that could be traced to exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant routinely used in the Vietnam War. The cases often involve incorrectly filled out forms, improperly given medical exams or lost medical records.
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had said he was proud of the reduced backlog in benefit claims and will keep pushing for the department to improve. "As I testified before Congress on May 15," Shinseki said in a statement, "I take any allegations about patient safety or employee misconduct very seriously. The reports of veterans' negative experiences while seeking VA care are of great personal concern to me."
Appeals have always taken a long time to resolve, Bergmann said. "It's nothing new, but it's finally being picked up," he said. "The president talks. The secretary's in hot water. Things are finally happening."
A 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service found it took an average of 1,094 days for the Board of Veterans' Appeals to reach a decision after a veteran filed a claim. Ashton Habighurst, a case manager at Bergmann & Moore, said the law firm finds that many cases fall through the cracks of the VA's huge bureaucracy. Claim Time plus Appeal Time = five or more years. Money saved by the VA through its own claims process, delaying claims in many cases to the point that only the veteran's survivors left alive to hear the BVA's decision.
A December report by the American Legion also found that 55% of 260 recently adjudicated claims had errors. The VA's West said about 11% of veterans file an official notice of disagreement, and about 5% make it to the appeals board.