WLOX Investigation: MS vets wait longer than average for claims to process

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The dining room table at Phil King's home in Gulfport no longer serves as a dinner table for family and friends. It became a holding area for detailed paperwork after he began filing disability claims with the Veteran's Administration.

King served 22 years in the Air Force and later spent time in the Middle East.

"I was hurt in Baghdad, Iraq in '04 and when I came back I applied for disability. And I thought it wouldn't be any problem," King explained. "It took me two years to get a hundred percent disability. But in the meantime, the Veterans Administration office in Jackson fought me every case of the way."

King said his disability eventually was cut off.

"When they stopped my disability, they said I can't draw workman's comp money. And mine was private insurance. I provided two letters from my insurance company and the Department of Labor stating that I was drawing private insurance, stating it was not workman's comp from the Department of Labor, which is referred to as OWCP. When I submitted that, that was it. They turned around and my disability was cut off."

"Because they cut my disability of DFAST, which is the Defense, Finance and Accounting Service, cut off my combat disability. And I was losing $6,000 a month, which affected my bill paying. It caused depression."

King decided he needed help and contacted Gulfport attorney Stephen Dummer who specializes in veterans' benefits. Dummer had to fill out a stack of documents on Phil King's behalf.

"For residents and citizens of Mississippi, I think this is one of the most challenging problems facing veterans, especially in the last 10 to 15 years," Dummer said.  "The problems have been aspirated by the level of bureaucracy, additional regulations which the government has passed."

Dummer said many of the cases he has dealt with should be open and shut cases where the veteran submits sufficient proof and testimony from doctors indicating that the benefits should be awarded because it is a service connected disability.

"However the VA simply ignores that, "Dummer said. "They either state that they did not receive the packet, despite having registered mail or certified mail proving receipt of it. Or they say it's not sufficient."

Dummer said in several instances, his office has prepared the benefits packet for retired veterans, delivered the packet to the right person in Jackson, and it just disappears. He said it may take up to 15 months, with forceful follow ups, before the VA seems to respond.

"I think that one of the elephants in the room is the level of bureaucracy in the Veterans Administration," Dummer said. "Not only are many of their staff not properly trained, I think that the overall structure of the bureaucracy prevents or, in fact, is designed to prevent veterans from obtaining their benefits very easily."

Dummer believes the Department of Veterans Affairs should have fewer, but more qualified people to make a judgement on a claim instead of having multiple levels of bureaucracy.

Does the VA use a delay tactic?

"The facts strongly suggest that's the intent of how the VA has been operating. That if they deny you enough, eventually you'll go away."

I emailed and made phone calls to get a response from the Jackson Department of Veterans Affairs that oversees claims in South Mississippi.

After two months, I finally received a phone call and later an email that stated: "Across the country in fiscal 2011, 1.3 million disability claims were filed with the VA.  The national average to make a decision on those claims was 188 days. The average 'wait' time for a decision at the Jackson Regional Office last year was 217 days."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a goal of making sure no claim takes longer than 125 days. Officials I spoke with admit the Jackson office has a long way to go. A spokesman did say the workers in the VA office receive extensive training on a regular basis.

Since the stories aired on WLOX, we have been flooded with emails and phone calls from other veterans who have been having problems with the regional office in Jackson.  WLOX will have a follow up in the coming weeks.

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