This Memorial Day, let us remember the men and women of the military, but let us also consider the ones left behind. In particular, the widows of Vietnam Veterans, whose husbands have succumb to Agent Orange exposure.
This past week, my Uncle, a retired career, Air Force man, began receiving his additional AO benefits for his heart disease. Of course, we all celebrated. We are thrilled his new disability rating will result in benefits for my Aunt, if something happens to him. My Mother and I, happily chatted about him getting his benefits. It is such joy to us, to see a Veteran and his family, finally being compensated for the Veteran’s loss of health, especially a family member. Money will never restore his health, as my Aunt quickly pointed out, but it will relieve some financial unknowns, due to loss of income, from illness and disability. Something my own parents did not have the opportunity to enjoy. This is the difference of the handling of new Agent Orange claims vs the reopened old Agent Orange claims.
Today, I heard grief and anger in my Mother’s usual calm, matter of fact, voice. She reminded me, not out of jealousy, but out of frustration, my Uncle received his benefits just 23 days after he filed for them. My Mother has waited twenty seven years since my father first filed his heart disease claim. You see, one day, my Dad left work at the steel mill early because he thought he had walking pneumonia. It turned out, the doctor said he was five hours away from a massive heart attack. He had to have emergency bypass surgery on his heart. He was 38 years old. This near death experience left my family nearly penniless. 80/20 insurance sounds great until a major medical issue makes your 20% well over $100,000.00 They never recovered financially. Around age 40 Dad developed diabetes, age 48 he had a stroke, and age 50 he died of a massive heart attack. “Till Death Do Us Part” became too real to my Mother, way to soon.
In July of 2010, my mother received a letter from the VA stating they were opening my Father’s file for forensic review, because most likely, his heart condition was going to be added to the presumptive list of diseases, cause by Agent Orange exposure. At that time, they stated they were unable to make a judgment on the case until it was officially added to the presumptive list. It was added at the end of October, 2011.
Since that time, my mother has been waiting seven months. She has called service officers to get answers. She has heard, “The VA is backed up due to new claims, they are overwhelmed and short staffed.” She has heard, they are paying living, ill, Veterans first, then the families of deceased ones (She was later told that was untrue). She has heard lots of rumors too. She has heard there will be no monies left for the old claims once the new claims have been addressed. She has heard claims had to be processed within 6 months. She has heard they have to be paid by October 30 or September 30. Rumor after rumor, and no one with true answers seems to be around. Every time she sends an inquiry on the status of the claim, she gets “We are overwhelmed, too few staff, or too few hours in a day.”
In 2002, the company my mother worked in for 30 years let her go with no warning. They moved their operations south. “As of 4:00 pm you no longer work here.” They would only give her severance pay if she signed a two year non-compete clause. Just four years after becoming a widow, now she found herself without her career. She was receiving her VA monthly benefit, and my Dad’s small pension from the mill, but it was barely enough. She made the difficult choice to accelerate her pension to have money to live on, and take advantage of her widow education benefits from the VA. My Mother graduated with her associate’s degree in 2003 (at age 56) and started a business with a partner. She has done all she can do to make a living for herself since Dad has died, but now she faces insecurity. Her business is just starting to do well. Yesterday she had to opt out of my Father's Social security or face stiff penalties. Now she is living with a comission based income in addition to her VA widow's pay and my Dad's small mill pension and she's nervous.
Senator Franken (D-MN) recently sent a letter to the secretary of the VA, Secretary Shinseki, in it among other things, Senator Franken mentioned the back log of forensic cases in review in his state. The subject of forensic reviews was explained in the reply from Secretary Shinseki to Senator Franken.
This is an excerpt from Sen. Franken’s letter to Secretary Shinseki:
This brings me to the final, and in someways most serious, problem that some of my constituents have encountered. The veterans who had previously filed claims and who now must have their cases reviewed at the Phoenix center have been faced with seemingly endless delay and impenetrable bureaucracy. My office, numerous Veterans Service Organizations, and even nearby VA regional offices have found it nearly impossible to review these files once they have been sent out of state. My office has contacted the Phoenix VA office regarding individual cases and was sent a standard form letter stating the claim was in process and the veteran would be notified when it was completed. My constituents need a more detailed response. Above all, these highly deserving veterans who have been waiting for so long for compensation should have their cases expedited, not delayed without any prospect of resolution.
An excerpt from Secretary Shinseki’s reply:
Claims submitted by Veterans who were previously denied service connection for any of the three presumptive conditions prior to October 13, 2009, must be processed in accordance with Nehmer guidelines. Such claims are being processed at one of 14 Resource Centers. All Nehmer claims under the jurisdiction of the St. Paul Regional Office are processed at the center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Claims handled by these special processing centers are receiving the highest level of attention. VA has established a goal of adjudicating the approximately 150,000 Nehmer claims by September 30, 2011. These claims are extremely complex, requiring a detailed review of potential entitlement from the earliest effective date allowable by· law. VA is devoting extensive resources to processing these claims, assigning our most experienced employees to the adjudication of these very labor-intensive cases. Over 1,300 VA employees are now dedicated to processing Nehmer claims, and mandatory overtime has been initiated at these 14 Resource Centers. We are continuously reevaluating our processes to ensure that we are providing Veterans with decisions as quickly and accurately as possible. As of May 6, 2011, over 35,000 of these claims have been rated at these Resource Centers.
(In case you do not understand the Nehmer Guidelines, here is the link
for a quick understanding jump to page, 10-12).
I believe enough is enough, 27 years after my father’s claim, and 13 years since his death, our family deserves better. How much longer do we wait? My Mother deserves the best. I would argue, she has suffered the most from this whole tragedy called Agent Orange. She has endured three miscarriages, the birth of a disable daughter, an ill husband, the death of her husband, and the loneliness of being a widow, during a time of life when there should be enjoyment of a lifetime together. She has suffered more than me.
Now the VA, is re-victimizing her, and all the other Agent Orange widows, with pending claims, They are holding the carrot out in front of them, then making them wait with no support. I find this disgraceful. My father’s Claim was filed in 1984, were there 35,000 Nehmer claims made prior to his? The Secretary wears that number, 35,000 cases completed, like a badge of honor. I am very happy for the 35,000 families that have already been awarded the Nehmer claim but 35,000,out of 150,000 claims, in seven months, is nothing to be proud of. It is a start, but it does not even represent half of the 150,000 open Nehmer claims.
Telling a widow, or a Vet’s family, they most likely will be compensated then making them wait with no idea of where their loved one’s claim is in the process is cruel. Why can’t the VA say, “Sorry Mrs. So and So, we haven’t started your husband’s claim yet, but we are projected to start it, the second week of August.” Or “Oh, Mrs. So and So your husband’s claim has had a total of 12 work hours devoted to it. It's projected to be completed in 15 business days.” Something….please, something…
Obviously, 14 Resource Centers are not enough. Instead of paying 1300 people overtime, why not add more centers to help carry the load? The most experienced staff could train others to work alongside the experts. The money spent would go to fresh workers who are not as prone to make mistakes, as overworked ones.
Mr. Secretary, according to your response to Senator Franken, there are 115,000 Nehmer Claims still pending. With 1300, highly qualified, VA employees, working overtime, on these highly involved cases; the simple math suggests, each worker has to review 88 cases to complete the 115,000 remaining pending claims, by (according to your response to Senator Franken) September 30, 2011.
Please Mr. Secretary, help me understand how each one of these specialized employees; can properly review 88 of these extremely complex cases, in less than 157 days (as of May 26, 2011)? These same employees have collectively completed only 35,000 claims in roughly 210 days. The math suggests each employee has only completed roughly 27 cases. Please be honest with our widows and families, Mr. Secretary. The deadline you have suggested is a pipe dream. Of course, the VA could try to push them all through, and create an environment requiring a long appeal process, and more trauma, and grief for the widows. Is this the ultimate goal? Mr. Secretary, hire more staff, complete this process properly and efficiently.
Who cares for the widow when she has given everything? Who protects her? Who will fight for her now that her solider is gone? Who will make the widow the priority she deserves to be? The widows of Vietnam Veterans deserve better treatment by the VA. God Bless all military widows and their families on this Memorial Day.
Heather A. Bowser, LPCC
Proud Daughter of a Deceased Vietnam Veteran
My Mother's license plate