The big backlog of claims for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was highlighted at a forum Monday in western Massachusetts. The issue brought federal, state and local officials together at the state-owned Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
Military veterans and their advocates described a broken system where claims for VA benefits are dragged through a bureaucratic maze. Patrick Asta-Ferrero of Agawam, a U.S. Army Iraq War veteran unable to work because of head trauma, said he started filing claims with the VA almost five years ago with no resolution to his case within sight.
A panel that included U.S. Democratic Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts, a top VA administrator ,and the Massachusetts Veterans Affairs Secretary was told the VA has a claims backlog totaling more than 850,000 cases. More than 600,000 claims are more than 125 days old. The VA has a self-imposed deadline to eliminate the backlog of claims by 2015.
Thomas Belton , the Director of Veterans’ Services for the city of Springfield does not believe the deadline will be met. He said the VA needs an overhaul.
Brad Meyers, Veterans Administration Regional Director in New England, said the agency does not have a structural problem, but a staffing issue. He said he is confident the claims backlog will be eliminated. The VA in New England has hired more people to process claims.
Meyers met privately after the public forum with Asta-Ferrero, the veteran who has tried for almost five years to access his VA benefits.
Veterans are struggling to have their claims addressed across the country, with VA facilities drowning in paperwork, as veterans fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan flood the already overburdened system.
Underscoring the importance of veterans’ issues, the mayors of Springfield, Holyoke, North Adams and Easthampton were in the audience. Congressman Neal said a member of his Congressional office staff is assigned fulltime to work with veterans.
Every city and town in Massachusetts has a local veterans’ agent. Gumersindo Gomez, director of the Western Massachusetts Bilingual Veterans’ Outreach Association, said the local agents should be certified by the VA to process claims on behalf of veterans.
Massachusetts Veterans Affairs Secretary Coleman Nee said most of the nation’s newest veterans are women, Latinos or African-Americans. He said the state is advocating for a community based outreach for veteran’s services.
The state-owned Holyoke Soldiers’ Home has expanded beyond its traditional nursing home care to help the broader veterans’ community. A veterans’ assistance center opened at the facility last February and an outpatient dental clinic has operated for a year.