WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, attended a hearing today entitled “Review of Veterans’ Disability Compensation: Forging a Path Forward.” A copy of Brown’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, follows.
“Claims processing is central to a veteran’s life. Without timely ratings, veterans must wait for the compensation and benefits they have earned. I understand the importance of getting a disability rating correct. Every veteran should get what he or she deserves. We can’t shortchange them.
“A long wait period is disservice to our veterans and a disgrace to our federal government. We talk about these backlogs and the challenges VA faces when addressing them. But I want to talk about the toll the delays place on our veterans and our families. I hear about delays from veterans all around Ohio.
“The case of a veteran in Cincinnati is typical. He had worked for years running his own janitorial business until he was forced to close his business after his service-connected physical injuries became too much to bear. He was exposed to extreme cold while on active duty in the 1970s. He sought treatment for this condition at the time, but did not apply for service-connected compensation until 2004. He was unable to stay on his feet because of the secondary effects of the frostbite. He was awarded 10 percent service-connected compensation in 2005 and immediately appealed the decision with the argument that the condition was not coded correctly by the VA.
“After four years – four years - of back and forth with the VA including assistance from my office, he was finally awarded 20 percent service-connected disability for each foot, resulting in a combined rating of 40 percent. He was sent a retroactive payment of $32,000 by the VA. This sounds like good news. Perhaps it is. But while waiting for the decision from the VA, he went through all the savings he had accrued from his business. His electric and water were both shut-off for multiple weeks. He went two weeks without washing his clothes. He had no air conditioning. He could not even plug in a fan during the hottest part of the summer.
“There are too many of these stories. Veterans are at risk of losing their savings, their jobs, and sometimes their homes while waiting for their claims and appeals to be decided. Widows are reduced to food stamps and family handouts. And the stress is damaging to a veteran’s health and well-being.
“Ohio veterans often tell me that they didn’t hesitate to serve. They did what they were asked; they just can’t understand why it has to take so long to settle their cases.
“The VA has taken important steps to improve the backlog. With the help of Congress, VA has added a large number of employees to assist in claims processing. More claims are being filed and they are becoming more and more complicated. So VA is falling further behind.
“The GAO this month reported that it takes an average of 96 days – more than three months – longer to resolve an appeal than it did in 2003. This is unacceptable. As the economy continues to struggle, we have to change the mentality at VA from erring on the side of VA to erring on the side of the veteran.
“I look forward to hearing testimony about the Disability Evaluation System (DES) Pilot Program. This is an important development for our younger veterans, but I want to hear more about what VA is doing to help those of the Vietnam Era and older who are waiting far too long.”