CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The United States promised to take care of its military members when they returned home from war, but the government is failing to live up to its end of the bargain, as up to as many as 200,000 veterans wait for appeals decisions about their monthly disability payments.
"I don't think it's fair"
Some veterans have waited years for decisions about their benefits without any guarantee they'll ever get paid.
"It's typical military: Hurry up and wait," Army veteran Leroy Perry said tearfully. "I don't think it's fair to me or the other veterans out there."
Four years of service during the first Gulf War has followed Perry ever since he came home. In return, he said he's spent more than a decade fighting the Department of Veterans Affairs for disability benefits for everything from a knee injury to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Thankfully, a pro bono lawyer came to his defense and helped the father of five finally secure about $4,000 a month for him and his family moving forward, but no retroactive pay. He filed an appeal in recent years in hopes of recouping about $500,000 in retroactive benefits. His case has barely budged.
"I'm saying to myself, 'If I haven't moved nowhere in two years, would I be alive to see if it [does] go through?'" Perry wondered. "All the other veterans in front of me, how long [have] they been waiting?"
Perry's VA profile shows almost 60,000 other appeals in front of him. With a total backlog of 200,000 appeals, that means another 140,000 cases wait behind him.
When Perry first shared his status with WCNC Charlotte in November 2022, his profile showed the VA was currently reviewing appeals from November 2018 or older.
"You want to be proud for serving your country," a disappointed Perry said. "I have days when I have meltdowns, and [they're] hard."
The VA claims process
Veterans who get sick or injured as a result of their service are eligible for monthly disability payments. Still, first, the VA has to approve their claim, and decide how much they should receive and when those payments go into effect. That alone, on average, takes 110 days, according to the VA.
If a veteran disagrees with any part of the decision, they can file an appeal and ask a veterans law judge in Washington, DC to review the case. Veterans can jump the line and get priority status when there's a financial hardship, terminal illness or advanced age, but generally, it's on a first-come, first-served basis.
The VA reports appeal wait times for the quickest appeals lane, on average, stand at 405 days. The agency's timeliness goal is 365 days for that path.
According to the most recent data, the average days pending for an appeal headed to a hearing, the slowest lane, is more than 630 days.
VA estimates are "not accurate"
Attorney Amy Fochler said, in her experience, appeals are taking much longer than that.
"They're not accurate," Fochler said of the VA's wait time estimates. "I can't predict when the VA is going to respond to [my client's] case."
Fochler represents hundreds of veterans who are desperate to secure the money they argue rightfully belongs to them. She said those veterans, which includes some pro bono clients, are victims of an overwhelmed federal system.
"I think it's a failure on the VA's part to recognize the veteran as a person. They are very focused on numbers," she said. "The VA is taking steps, but it's going to be a long time before we see any significant changes."
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Fochler would know. She previously worked at the Board of Veterans' Appeals for several years.
"At the board, I think it was particularly challenging to realize it's not just a file. These are not just papers shuffling across the desk, but these are veterans who have fought for our country and these are benefits that they have earned and they deserve that recognition," she said. "These are actual people and I think Washington has overlooked that and it's their responsibility to take care of the veterans."
Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017
Faced with an even bigger backlog, Congress passed legislation in 2017 to speed up the broken process and give veterans more options, but it took a year and a half to fully implement that new law. In the years since, the VA has greatly reduced the number of older, so-called "legacy" appeals, but more and more new Appeals Modernization Act (AMA) cases keep coming in. As a result, VA records show the backlog started growing again in recent years.
"I think the VA could have reacted faster, hired more staff, had them prepared," Fochler said. "I think politically, Congress has not acted as quickly as they could."
Board of Veteran's Appeals Chairwoman Cheryl Mason conceded shortcomings during a 2021 congressional hearing but also pleaded for help.
"There is more work to do," she told a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs subcommittee at the time. "I would like to be able to hold hearings within six months and get decisions out the door shortly thereafter. I don't have the resources to do that at this time."
VA is hiring more attorneys, judges, support staff
The VA refused to answer WCNC Charlotte's questions on camera. By email, a VA spokesperson said the agency now has the approval to increase staffing by more than a third as part of an effort "to build capacity to meet expected demands." The agency once again acknowledged "there is still much work to do."
The VA noted its record year of 102,000 appeals decisions in 2020. The agency came close to replicating that workload in subsequent years and expects to exceed that number this year.
"We remain vigilant in filling vacancies, training personnel and processing decisions as swiftly and diligently as possible," the agency added.
The Board of Veterans Appeals had hoped to resolve all "legacy" appeals by the end of 2022 but failed to meet its goal.
"We remain committed to resolving all legacy appeals as quickly as possible, especially because Veterans in the sunsetting legacy appeals system generally have been waiting the longest for final resolution of their cases," the agency told WCNC Charlotte. "Since November 2017, we have reduced legacy appeals from 472,066 to 84,063 pending at the end of this year. Despite the 82% reduction, our pending inventory is higher than originally projected. We developed the initial plan in October 2019, prior to COVID. Therefore, we needed to revise the plan based on the pandemic and the evolving workplace environment."
The agency now projects to resolve all of the oldest claims by the end of 2023.
"Everybody is trying to do their job," Fochler said, having worked at the agency. "Everybody wants to help veterans and do their job, but seeing the backlog continually increase, the pressure continuing to grow, you just try to do the best you can when you're there, but it's a frustrating process."
The fight continues
Leroy Perry doesn't have faith in the system. The VA has let him down too many times before.
"I'm nowhere near the front and that's from two years ago," Perry said. "They don't know when it's going to go before the judge. It's just sitting out there."
As he waits for his appeal, Perry carries everything he experienced during the war along with him. Those invisible scars are painful on their own. The disrespect he's experienced in the decades since serving hurts even more.
"That stuff don't go away. It don't go away," he said crying. "I put my life on the line for you."
Virtual town hall
WCNC Charlotte wants to be part of the solution. WCNC Charlotte hosted a virtual town hall with a panel of experts who helped to answer questions about the VA disability benefits system and offered resources to help. The virtual town hall was held Thursday, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. on WCNC Charlotte's Facebook and YouTube pages.
VIRTUAL TOWN HALL: Rewatch it here
There are also other resources available to help. The VA recommends veterans start by considering using an accredited attorney, claims agent or Veterans Service Organization representative to help with filing an appeal. The agency has a searchable database available to find qualified help.
How to file a claim:
Filing a claim online:
Appeals under the AMA:
Lawmakers who can make a difference:
Both Republicans and Democrats recently announced their committee assignments for the new Congress.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R), NC and Rep. Greg Murphy (R), NC call the current appeals backlog "unacceptable." Both lawmakers sit on Veterans' Affairs committees. WCNC Charlotte spoke with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) about this issue.
"What I really encourage any veteran to do, some of them seek the advice of an attorney or a consultant," Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). "Please call our office first, and let's see if we can resolve the complaint. We've got a very good record in our office, we can do a lot of things without them going through the extra complexity and the cost of getting some third party to help them. Give us the first shot at solving your problem if you're a veteran. But we may reach a point to where we still think you have a valid claim, and you may need to get legal counsel to proceed through with it like the cases that you've mentioned. But we are talking about veterans who may be entitled to decades of back benefits that we're fighting for. And we're going to continue to. Even if you want to pursue the claim on your own, or use a veteran service organization or someone else to help you through it, let us know. Because that lets me go back to Washington and be your voice. So call our office, we'll do everything we can to help you and when we run out of options, we can refer you to a VSO, we can refer you to others that may be able to help you through the process if we ran out of all the procedural options, but start with us. We've got a great track record, and I want to build on that."
Sen. Tillis was one of just 11 Republican senators who voted against the PACT Act last year, which passed anyhow. The law approved additional "presumptive conditions" now considered automatically connected to a veteran's military service. Under the PACT Act, veterans with health problems linked to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic exposures now qualify for extra benefits. The law also approved money for the VA to try and hire more employees at the Board of Veterans' Appeals.
Below is a list of lawmakers who sit on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Click on their name for their contact information:
- Chairman Rep. Mike Bost (R), IL
- Ranking Member Rep. Mark Takano, (D), CA
- Rep. Jack Bergman (R), MI
- Rep. Julia Brownley (D), CA
- Rep. Nikki Budzinski (D), IL
- Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D), FL
- Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R), AZ
- Rep. Eli Crane (R), AZ
- Rep. Chris Deluzio (D), PA
- Rep. Scott Franklin (R), FL
- Rep. Jen Kiggans (R), VA
- Rep. Greg Landsman (D), OH
- Rep. Mike Levin (D), CA
- Rep. Morgan Luttrell (R), TX
- Rep. Nancy Mace (R), SC
- Rep. Morgan McGarvey (D), KY
- Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R), IA
- Rep. Frank Mrvan, (D), IN
- Rep. Greg Murphy (R), NC
- Rep. Chris Pappas, (D), NH
- Rep. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R), American Samoa
- Rep. Delia Ramirez, (D), IL
- Rep. Matt Rosendale (R), MT
- Rep. Keith Self (R), TX
- Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R), WI
Below is a list of senators who sit on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Click on their name for their contact information:
- Chairman Sen. Jon Tester (D), MT
- Ranking Member Sen. Jerry Moran (R), KS
- Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R), TN
- Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), CT
- Sen. John Boozman (R), AR
- Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), OH
- Sen. Bill Cassidy (R), LA
- Sen. Kevin Cramer (R), ND
- Sen. Margaret Wood Hassan (D), NH
- Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D), HI
- Sen. Joe Manchin III (D), WV
- Sen. Patty Murray (D), WA
- Sen. Mike Rounds (R), SD
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), VT
- Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I), AZ
- Sen. Dan Sullivan (R), AK
- Sen. Thom Tillis (R), NC
- Sen Tommy Tuberville (R), AL
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