Niagara Gazette — Irony. The two most prevalent disabilities for veterans receiving compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at the end of fiscal year 2011 were tinnitus and hearing loss. Tinnitus, a condition marked by ringing in the ears, affected 827,500 veterans and hearing loss affected 687,700 of them, according to the most current VA data available.
Yet if so many disabled veterans are having trouble hearing, why was it so many members of Congress were the ones having difficulty hearing how much the government shutdown was hurting these wounded warriors? As an attorney at a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business, I found the shutdown to be deplorable. Disabled veterans needed — and still need — lawmakers to quickly eliminate anything that threatens the VA’s ability to process disability claims for direly needed benefits, which even before the shutdown were subjected to inexcusable delays.
During the shutdown, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki warned the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the shutdown “directly threatens” his agency’s ability to cut through its infamous claims backlog. He said that 1,400 veterans were consequently not receiving disability claim decisions on a daily basis. Shortly before Shinseki made these comments, the VA furloughed 7,800 Veterans Benefits Administration employees and closed its 56 regional benefit offices to the public.
Even with lawmakers reaching a deal to reopen the government, the damage has been done. Gains made against the VA’s backlog have been lost. Forever? Let’s hope not. So far this year, claim processing at the Buffalo regional office took an average 302.5 days to complete as of Oct. 5. In the least, that is better than the 390.1-day average processing time at the New York regional office and the 347-day national average, according to the VA.
Shinseki had warned that disability claim decisions would not be delivered to 5,600 veterans daily had the VA run out of mandatory funds at the end of October. Thankfully, it seems that disaster was averted ... for now. Nevertheless, disabled veterans with claims before the VA need to assess their situation and prepare for long – if not longer – wait periods. And if they cannot wait about 10 months or longer for a decision for the VA, they should explore their options.
If a veteran’s disability prevents him or her from working, he or she may qualify for Social Security Disability (SSD) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. On average, the wait for a decision from the U.S. Social Security Administration on SSD applications is three to five months. That is significantly shorter than the average time veterans wait when they file a claim at the Buffalo office.
Shinseki had also noted how veterans from the generation that fought in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are enrolling at the VA at unprecedented levels. By the end of fiscal year 2011, 1.2 million post-9/11 veterans were receiving service-connected disability benefits, eclipsing the 1.16 million Vietnam War-era veterans receiving the same type of benefits.
The old saying goes, “War is hell.” Some would say the same is true for endlessly waiting, or not being heard.
Paul M. Pochepan is Of Counsel at Tully Rinckey PLLC in Buffalo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Paul M. Pochepan is Of Counsel at Tully Rinckey PLLC in Buffalo. He can be reached at email@example.com.