Matthew: Hello and welcome to the Hill and Ponton video blog on veterans. My name is Matthew Hill and this is my partner, Carol Ponton. We want to talk to you today about the backlog in appeals. Most of you have probably read and heard about the backlog the VA has been addressing for the last six months or so, but that backlog is specific to new claims. So if you’ve had a claim and you’ve been denied and you filed a Notice of Disagreement, that claim is not one that they’ve been looking into.
The backlog we’re seeing in appeals is a backlog where once the veteran files the NOD, it’s taking the VA anywhere from two to four years to decide the case. That’s from the date of the NOD, not from the date they file their first claim.
Carol: A lot of times veterans are confused because it’s not from the date they got the rating decision, but the date they filed the Notice of Disagreement to that rating decision.
I have been calling a number of the offices saying, “This case is three years old. Why don’t we have a decision?”
They said, “We’re still working on Notices of Disagreement from 2010.”
There are some exceptions. Some of the decision review officers are into 2011. Some are a little beyond that, but the bulk of them are working on Notices of Disagreement for 2010.
Matthew: This a problem that stems from what the VA has done the last several years. Four years ago now, the VA passed new regulation on the Nehmer cases as they call them, but we all know of as the Agent Orange cases. In those cases, the VA started greening [? 1:37] new conditions like Parkinson’s and ischemic heart disease, and they took all of their decision review officers off their appeal teams and put them on those cases. Once they did that, they had the backlog started.
Carol: That was well over a year and a half I think that they did that.
Matthew: After that, they took those same individuals – when I started talking about this backlog with initial claims – and put them on those. So the backlog has been growing. We’ve been told that this is the year of appeals by the VA, meaning they’re going to focus on appeals. They’ve been talking to Congress about what they’re going to do with it. But this is not going to be an easy fix and it’s going to take some time. As Carol was saying, there are certain times when you consider that.
Carol: One of the reasons I want you to know why it’s going to take time is, as one of the decision review officers told me, “They’re taking me off my desk and making me work on new claims now that I finished working on Nehmer. But when they find out the appeals are far behind, who’s going to help me?” You have to be really trained to do the appeals, and so they have no help. That’s another reason.
Matt didn’t mention government shutdowns, but the government shutdowns didn’t help at all because they would be out two, three, four weeks at the various shutdowns and nothing is done. Because they’re so far behind and so many veterans are really in need of these benefits, they have set very strict criteria as to what cases they will pull out of line and do out of order. They call these the dire financial situations. If a veteran is homeless, that qualifies. If you are foreclosed and about to be homeless, sometimes we can get them to act on that. If a veteran is dying or if a veteran is suicidal, those are the only areas that I’ve seen where they’ve actually moved the cases.
Matthew: But there’s a catch. The VA doesn’t take your word for any of those situations – dying, being kicked out of your house, getting the electricity turned off.
Carol: You have to prove it, so we have to put in the medical records, we have to have the foreclosure notices, or whatever proves your situation. I might add, they move at the same glacial rate that they usually do – but at least they’re addressing your case. We urge all of our veterans if they qualify – I hope they don’t, but when they do – let us know so that we could at least get those cases moved.
Matthew: But for your cases, it’s important to keep that in mind. If you see a foreclosure coming – meaning you’re not able to pay your bills anymore, you’re not able to pay your mortgage – it’s something to keep in mind or remember, you need to get documentation of that and then you start sending it into the VA saying, “This is my situation. I’m behind in my bills and I’m about to lose my house.” As it stands right now, there’s no quick fix. Frankly, you’re going to be just waiting in line until your decision happens anywhere from two to four years later.
Carol: As Matt said, there are some possibilities that might come to pass. The VA has said they’re going to work on this. One of the things they’ve suggested is if a veteran only has one real appeal or one issue, maybe we’ll put them in a different line and try to expedite them as opposed to veterans who have many issues. They haven’t done any of that yet, but if they do…
Matthew: That’s something to think about. Narrowing down your cases to the one real issue that you really want service connected.
Thank you. This is the Hill and Ponton video blog with Carol Ponton and Matthew Hill. We’ll see you again next time.