Florida vets could see old VA claims settled soon

New VA programs are often viewed with skepticism by veterans and advocates. But even self-described "jaded" advocates said they are optimistic about this plan. It promises to fast track a provisional decision that could become final after a year. Approved cases could begin receiving compensation immediately.

"I do think that's going to help because we do have quite a few claims pending in the Broward area," said Owen Walker, a veteran and director of the Broward County Veterans Services Center. His office assists veterans filing VA petitions.

News reports in recent months have detailed excruciating wait times and unseemly working conditions inside VA regional offices. At least one VA building was reportedly compromised because of the crushing weight of the paper files inside.

The VA does not track the number of claims by county, but in the agency's St. Petersburg Regional Office, which covers all of Florida, the backlog of first-time claims is 34,749.

About 1,800 Florida claims will become two years old in July, said regional office spokeswoman Collette Burgess. The staff will be throwing its weight behind those first.

"These are the Florida veterans who have waited the longest for a decision, and we are committed to providing them with decisions within the next 60 days," Burgess said in an email.

Once the provisional decision is issued, veterans have a year to send more evidence to try to increase their compensation or overturn a denial. After a year, the decision becomes final and any challenges must go through the normal, lengthy appeals process.

The initiative, announced late last week, will not affect pension claims or appeals. This fact is likely to upset older veterans who have been mired in the VA bureaucracy for years. One Korean War veteran waited five years for an appeal hearing before the Sun Sentinel brought attention to his case.

Many more die waiting for a decision.

Piero Pareja runs the Veterans Services Center in Palm Beach County. Himself an Army veteran, Pareja filed an appeal in April 2012 that has yet been unanswered. He said it frustrates him to "see a veteran who died and never received his pension."

Some advocates are concerned that appeals, pensions and simple new claims will take longer as the VA prioritizes long-pending claims. In other words, veterans filing new claims for injuries that could easily be rated and paid out could wait longer as VA employees focus on the backlog.

"The ones that are this old are this old for a reason. They tend to be very complicated cases," said Valorie Reilly, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1594, representing the St. Petersburg office.

VA officials have said it will staff the effort with claims reviewers who had been working on a glut of new Agent Orange cases. These staffers will be reassigned to the new initiative and other sectors will be unaffected, they said.

Reilly said this has not put employees at ease. She expects complicated training sessions and "off-the-clock working."

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, has called for resignations in the VA. On Friday, he said he hoped the plan was "good policy rather than just good PR."

"The department must not shift resources and manpower away from processing new claims just to clear out old ones," he said in a statement.

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