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Frank Gray

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Veterans must endure huge backlog for benefits

Indiana has about 450,000 veterans, and more and more of them are applying for veterans’ disability benefits all the time.

Seeking those benefits can be easy or, as one retired master sergeant told me, as hard as pulling a hen’s tooth if you don’t have the documentation you need.

Veterans can get help, though. The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS and even local county government have what are called service officers who help people file claims.

The same retired master sergeant, though, was troubled that the American Legion had announced in its October/November issue of the Hoosier Legionnaire that it had developed a large backlog of claims and would no longer accept new clients seeking veterans’ benefits.

When the backlog was whittled down, it would accept new clients, but only fully developed claims, that is, claims with all the paperwork in order.

It sounded like dreadful news. The American Legion, the biggest veterans’ organization, had essentially closed its doors, temporarily at least, to veterans seeking help for the first time.

The change had quickly increased the caseload at places like the VFW, which also provides assistance to veterans.

“We’re picking up a lot of claims,” said Paul Curtice with Disabled American Veterans in Indianapolis, adding the Legion’s decision was unfortunate.

“We’re all covered up. We’ve all got more claims coming in than going out.”

But George Jarboe, the veterans service officer for Allen County, said it was nothing to be alarmed about. The Legion had experienced some turnover and was down to only a couple of service officers, and it takes at least a year and a half to train new service officers.

There were plenty of other resources available for veterans who need assistance filing disability claims, Jarboe said.

John Hickey, with the American Legion in Indianapolis, said the organization had always accepted anyone wanting to file a claim whether it could be proved or not.

Once the Legion starts accepting new clients, it will tell them how to gather the evidence they need to get benefits and help them file a formal claim when they’re ready.

Meanwhile, Hickey said, “We don’t want to spend our limited resources on claims that are impossible to prove.”

The real story, Jarboe said, was not the Legion’s move, but the fact that so many veterans were filing disability claims.

Typically it takes four to six months for a fully developed claim to be approved. An undeveloped claim, one that involves digging up old records, can take 18 months to complete. If you are turned down, you can appeal, but that can take at least another two years.

Three or four years ago, the state had a backlog of perhaps 8,000 claims. Today that backlog has swelled to 20,000, and service officers say more veterans are seeking assistance all the time.

There are several reasons, I was told. The economy is bad, so some veterans are seeking sources of income anywhere they can.

Not too long ago, Congress declared that ischemic heart disease was a presumptive condition for veterans who had served in Vietnam. That meant that if a person had served in Vietnam and now had coronary artery disease, it was presumed to be related to his military service and he could get disability benefits.

Most Vietnam vets are now in their 60s and 70s, about the time heart disease rears its head, and “They shot claims in like crazy,” Jarboe said.

Those claims were given priority, which meant all other claims had to be put on hold until the presumptive claims were completed, aggravating the backlog.

Veterans really don’t lose anything if benefits are delayed. The date that a claim is filed is known as the effective date, meaning that once approved, a veteran is paid benefits from that date.

Indiana in particular has a large number of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, just because so many Hoosier reservists were activated for those wars, Curtice said, and those veterans are much better educated regarding the benefits they are entitled to receive.

The American Legion’s decision won’t slow anything down for veterans, Jarboe said. In fact, because of its backlog, the Legion would have been doing a disservice to veterans if it had continued to accept claims, he said.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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