14 December 2014

VA Raters Deny Claims in Error, But Only Veterans Suffer Consequences


Vietnam War Navy Cross recipient Steve Lowery isn’t alone in his battle to convince the Veterans Benefits Administration that his wounds are linked to his military service.

Lowery, a retired Marine major from Las Vegas, took a long-awaited physical examination Thursday at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center to show a doctor that scars from shrapnel in his knee and those on his thighs from an AK-47 resulted from a 1969 firefight in Vietnam.

In 1994, the VA benefits office in Reno told him those wounds weren’t related to his military service, and he’s been fighting with the agency ever since.

The VA apparently disallowed his initial claim because the government’s archive agency failed to send his records to Reno. Bewildered by the decision, Lowery provided a copy of his personal medical file in 2010. Two years later, his claim was rejected again.

Since the Review-Journal wrote about Lowery’s case last week, other veterans have come forward with complaints about tactics employed by the agency, which demands that veterans prove their injuries were service-related but can deny claims without proving anything.

Analysis: Reporter Keith Rogers describes the problem correctly. VA claims workers can deny a claim on any real or imagined flaw, and can even as with C-123 veterans' Agent Orange claims deny the claims for VA-recognized Agent Orange illnesses by insisting Agent Orange is harmless.

Truth and accuracy and legal justification seem of little matter to Veterans Benefits Administration and its Compensation and Pension Service. VA can cite any reason that comes to mind, ignore the law and VA's own regulations, thus forcing any hapless veteran into a years-long appeal process to correct a claim. VA is not accountable for such heavy-handed abuse of their program, and claims officials face no consequences for their mistakes or poor judgment or event spiteful personal anti-veteran agendas. Remember: the veteran is already sick with cancer or another ailment or injury and has waited an average of a year just for VA to deny the claim.

Agreed – most VA mistakes are innocent or even tied to the veterans' difficulties providing proper records. However, too many situations like those described by Mr. Rogers reflect a VA system favoring rapid denial of claims with inadequate oversight, over proper adjudication of a veteran's search for medical care and other earned benefits. VA needs a system providing bonuses, if it really must incent its workers that way, based solely on their accuracy and proper decisions, not just volume of claims handled.

BVA or CVAC reversals and remanded decisions should have career consequences for VA staff matching the harm caused the veteran suffering the years-long impact of VA's mistakes. Any such consequences cannot possibly compare to the VA-caused  suffering of a veteran seeking care for cancers or heart disease being wrongly turned away from VA hospitals because of flawed VA decision-making.

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