Disabled and Forgotten: Hundreds of Oklahoma veterans waiting more than year on claims

Are promises being delivered? The VA gives answers

TULSA -- Sam Slavens is like thousands of other veterans. He's had to wait on a response from the Department of Veterans Affairs about his benefits claims.

"I think they're just waiting for me to go away, maybe I'll go away before they have to process it any further," Sam said in May.

RELATED STORY - Oklahoma veterans like Sam Slavens are waiting for benefits claims (http://bit.ly/vetsbacklog)

But he didn't go anywhere. In fact, when we spoke with him in mid-June, he was more determined than ever.

"The last two months they started me in the beginning again. The doctor I saw before, I had to go see again."

Sam said he received dozens of emails from viewers offering their support following our previous story with him. Senator Jim Inhofe and Congressman Jim Bridenstine were among those who reached out.  

"I feel like my claim is moving forward I don't feel I'm stalemate anymore," said Sam.  

When we spoke to the Veterans Affairs in May, we were told the hold up on Sam's claim was proving his inability to work.  After our story, he received a form in the mail from the VA, he took it to his former employer and they immediately signed off on it.

On July 1 we received an email response from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It said, the hold up on Sam's claim was over.

All of Sam's claimed conditions, with the exception of his claim for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been evaluated and rating decisions completed. He will receive retroactive benefits and his new monthly compensation rate was effective July 1, 2013.

"I don't think I would have gotten this far without your help," Sam explained. 

As for the PTSD claim, an exam will be scheduled for Sam and once results are evaluated a rating decision will be made.

"It's been a long long road, you have been a tremendous help. There is no way to express my gratitude."

Since January, the backlog at the VA in Muskogee has reduced 7 percent. Thirty percent of claims in Muskogee are now fully electronic and it's estimated by this fall all claims will be electronic.

As a result of a national initiative enacted in April, Muskogee was able to make rating decisions on all claims pending more than two years for Oklahoma veterans. In Phase 2, the focus will shift to claims pending more than one year as of October 31, 2013.

Click on the map to see how Oklahoma compares to other states (mobile users should click http://bit.ly/ZXe5LA to see the data).

So what is contributing to the nationwide backlog? This is the response from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs in Muskogee:

Veterans submitting claims today claim many more medical conditions than previous Veteran groups, largely because of multiple deployments and the fact they are 10 times as likely to survive today's wars - but with multiple medical issues for a lifetime.  The complexity of these claims has increased the time and skill it takes to complete the claim.  Nationally, there has been a 200% increase over the last 10 years in initial disability compensation claims containing eight or more medical issues.  From 2009 to 2012, not only did the number of claims received increase, but the number of issues inside these claims increased from 2.5 million to over 4 million.  This 50 percent growth in medical issues - which is a truer measure of the time it takes to complete a claim, is a major factor that is having an impact on production, the growth in inventory and backlog, and the timeliness of claims processing.

Another factor contributing to the backlog is the rate at which Veterans, already in-receipt of benefits, re-file disability compensation claims seeking a higher rating.  As of June 2013, 55% of all claims in Muskogee's inventory were from Veterans already in-receipt of benefits, with an average rating of 54% and an average monthly award of $1,197.00.  Considering that the average re-filed claim received from Oklahoma Veterans contains 4.4 issues, a total of 31,755 individual rating decisions must be evaluated for Veterans already in-receipt of VA benefits.  

2NEWS will continue to track claims.  If you've been waiting a year or more for your benefits, visit www.kjrh.com/problemsolvers or email us at problemsolvers@kjrh.com.

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