Investigation Prompts Questions from Congress
This week, The Baltimore Sun joined a growing list of prominent newspapers across the nation providing hard-hitting coverage of the delay and error crisis at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), the agency within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) responsible for processing Veterans’ disability benefit claims. Joseph Moore, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, was quoted in the article, and our law firm regularly assists reporters investigating VBA.
The infection that shut down VBA’s Regional Office in Oakland, California, and prompted highly negative press coverage of VBA offices in Texas, Alaska, and Michigan, has hit Veterans in Maryland who are served by VBA’s Baltimore Regional Office.
According to The Baltimore Sun’s investigative report, the VA’s Baltimore office is the slowest in the nation in processing disability claims for Veterans – averaging about a year – and makes more mistakes than any other office.
The Sun report quoted Bergmann & Moore’s partner Joseph Moore, who said the delays in processing claims carry grave consequences for injured servicemen and servicewomen. “VA’s chronic delays and frequent mistakes processing claims inflicts serious harm on our wounded veterans who need VA benefits to feed and house their families,” Moore said in a statement.
Two days after the Sun ran its shocking story, the newspaper published an impassioned letter from Maryland Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin to VA Secretary Erik Shinseki, in which the lawmakers expressed their deep frustration over the unresolved backlog of disability claims in the Baltimore office.
“We request that you promptly provide us with an action plan to address this serious issue and assign a senior level official at the VA to communicate with us about the status and progress made under this plan,” the Senators wrote. “Our brave veterans and their families have made every sacrifice in service to our nation. It is our duty to meet our obligations to provide these men and women the services and benefits they were promised and earned in an efficient manner. We hope to work with you to improve services for our veterans in the Baltimore office and look forward to your response.”
The situation for veterans in Maryland is appalling. Approximately 84 percent of more than 20,000 claims pending in Baltimore are older than 125 days, the worst percentage of backlogged cases in the country. Their error rate is also the highest in the country at 26.2 percent, compared to 13.7 percent nationally.
In the Sun’s follow-up story on the crisis, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Rep. Jeff Miller, said that many VA Regional Offices in larger cities suffer from the same problem that exists in Baltimore: high turnover among employees and management.
“This has a direct negative impact on office productivity and morale, leading to slower processing timess,” Miller said in a statement. “We are committed to improving benefits processing and speeding the delivery of benefits to our veterans across the country by investigating the turnover problems at urban VA facilities, exploring better training programs for VA employees and looking into incentives for employees who process claims in a timely and accurate manner.”
The Sun’s report concluded that the failures in Baltimore are a symptom of an inexcusable national crisis in which more than 900,000 veterans wait an average of nine months for the agency to determine whether they qualify for disability benefits, according to VA’s own numbers.
In 2012, nearly 20,000 veterans tragically died waiting on VBA. As we asked at the start of 2013: How many of our veterans will die this year waiting for the VBA benefits that they have earned?