The Veterans Benefits Administration, which disburses about $95 billion worth of assistance a year to veterans, including disability funds and pensions, has come under intense fire for mishandling benefit claims.
CBS News reported
Thursday that that its own investigation had uncovered large-scale mismanagement of claims by the benefits administration – part of the Department of Veterans Affairs – including reports that thousands of claims were stashed in file cabinets and ignored.
In many cases, this resulted in the denial of earned benefits
, with many veterans dying before receiving answers on claims.
One person who says the VA claims system is badly broken is Dorrie Stafford, who produced a July 29, 2014 letter sent to her husband Wayne, an Army veteran, for a disability claim he filed in July 2004 – a decade earlier.
"The decade-long delay is just one problem; the other is that Wayne died in an accident seven years ago, without hearing a word from the VA," CBS said.
"Why would you suddenly, after all these years, send a letter to a dead man?" Dorrie Stafford asked. "It upsets me."
The problem goes well beyond the Stafford case. According to whistleblowers at the Veterans Benefits office in Oakland, California, Wayne Stafford's claim is one of 13,184 "informal benefit claims" (letters from veterans expressing an interest in applying for benefits) that were filed between 1996 and 2009 which ended up buried in a file cabinet.
The VA is legally required to respond to these informal claims by providing an application to the claimant.
"We were getting letters from elderly veterans and from widows who were literally at the end of their life, begging for help," claimed Rustyann Brown, part of a team assigned by the VA to process the claims.
She was part of a team finally assigned to process those claims two years ago and the job began, she said, with a disturbing discovery. She discovered that half of the veterans whose cases she was looking at had already died while waiting for the VA to answer their initial inquiry.
Brown said that VA supervisors in Oakland ordered her team to do something illegal: mark the claims "no action necessary" and toss them aside regardless of whether the applicant was dead or alive.
"The VA didn't help them. The VA didn't care about them. They took them, they put them in a file, and they stuffed them away," she said, adding that when she expressed concern, she was removed from the project.
Missing claims and lost records have become a problem for VA offices across the country. Over the past year, the VA inspector general has found serious problems in at least six benefits offices around the country.
Problems included more than 9,000 records sitting on employees' desks in Baltimore, unprocessed claims documents in Philadelphia, and computer manipulation to disguise the fact that claims were incomplete in Houston.
As for Dorrie Stafford, she has struggled financially since her husband's death and now lives with friends in the Northern California mountains. Her current home has no electricity.
Mrs. Stafford says she was unaware that she might be eligible for widow's benefits, adding that even a modest pension of $400 a month would be helpful.
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