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WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation: VA disability claim appeal delays

Veterans here in the Valley often wait for years to get decisions about the disability appeals claims. Vets are hopeful changes are coming soon.

Posted: Oct. 2, 2018 4:51 PM
Updated: Oct. 2, 2018 6:42 PM

WAAY 31’s I-Team investigated frustrations facing veterans here in the Tennessee Valley and across the country. Right now, nearly half-a-million of our military veterans have been waiting for years to have their disability claim appeals heard.

We looked into the VA appeal delays for a Lawrence County man and what the Veterans Administration is doing to correct the problem for all vets.

"All this is a lot of noise,” Mike Love told WAAY 31. Love was talking about his Army training. “And of course we trained with grenades.” It was high decibel training for a potential high risk deployment to Vietnam.

"The whole time when we went through Airborne school, we jumped out of a C-141 jet that has jet engines.” Love trained with the Army 101st Airborne in Kentucky. With the war ending, he missed out on going to Vietnam. Instead, he served at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska.

Love believes his Army training hurt his hearing.

"The older I got, the worse it got,” he told us. “And still right now, sitting here right now, I've got ringing in this ear especially. And it's getting worse."

All Love wants from the Department of Veterans Affairs is a hearing aid. Instead, he’s gotten rejection letters, one after another. “In this pack, I applied for disability on this form,” Love showed us. “And then it was denied and I appealed it."

That’s when Love’s frustrating quagmire of appealing the VA’s decision began. He’s already been waiting more than three years. "In August of 2015, I filed this form for application for disability compensation. And then I was denied in December of 2015. And we appealed it in December of 2015. And I haven't had a hearing or anything," Love explained.

"VA Disability Claims: it's where a veteran has a service-connected disease or injury,” Calvin Underwood told WAAY 31. Underwood is a veteran himself. Retired from the Navy, he now helps fellow vets navigate the disability claims appeal process.

For decades, that process has been mired in confusion. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie calls it “… a complicated appeals system that was buried in several layers of law.”

Many local veterans have looked for help from VFW Post 4190 in Decatur. “Continually, we'll get two to three a week that calls or comes in,” Underwood said. “It seems like the harder we try to get them done, the more keeps coming.”

For veterans who died serving in the military, one way we pay tribute to them is by building monuments. Many of our living vets face the monumental problem of appealing their VA disability claims. It’s battle after battle in a war that can last several years.

Underwood is eager about promised changes. "They're going to change their whole appeal process,” he told us.

President Donald Trump signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act just over a year ago: August 23, 2017. Congress mandated a February 2019 deadline. One snag in modernizing has been extensive computer system upgrades

To get ready, the VA has been training its employees and looking to hire hundreds more. Some critics are skeptical, but the VA vows it will meet the deadline.

To fill the gap until then, the VA says it’s working to help veterans through RAMP, the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program. About 1,500 VA employees have been processing RAMP claims. Love filled out his paperwork for RAMP this past June.

Finally, last week, he received a letter acknowledging his claim is in the RAMP system. Love has no idea, though, when the VA will make its decision. "Whether our case is scheduled or nothing, you know."

Like Love, his fellow veterans continue to wait: six years on average. Other veterans never get an answer. According to the VA’s data, since 2009, more than 35,000 veterans have died with their claims unresolved.

The problem makes Calvin Underwood heartsick. "They've given their youth and their health for this country that we all might be free,” he told us. “And yet they're second-class citizens when it comes time they need some help back from the VA."

Mike Love is hopeful the VA will speed up its appeals process. That’s what hundreds-of-thousands of veterans are hoping for, too: "That it gets someone's attention at the Veterans Administration -- that they will hear these claims of veterans quicker than what they're doing now."

WAAY 31 reached out to the Veterans Administration. But, we haven’t heard back from the VA.

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