Calling the failures at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore "inexcusable," Maryland's congressional leadership on Monday demanded the beleaguered agency develop an immediate plan to fix the local problems in processing disability claims.
Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin sent a strongly worded letter to VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki that also calls for assigning a senior official to ensure progress is made. The letter comes a day after a Baltimore Sun article revealed that the agency's Baltimore-based office, which serves 450,000 Maryland veterans, is the worst performing in the country.
"Your agency has acknowledged that the problems at the Baltimore office are severe enough to warrant additional training and quality checks; this is inexcusable and deserves your focused and immediate attention," the senators wrote.
"Since 2011, we have pressed you to develop and execute a plan to address backlog and quality issues, yet our veterans still experience inexcusable delays and errors in the adjudication of their claims. We cannot allow this to continue."
In Maryland, veterans wait an average of a year, compared with nine months nationally, for an initial decision on a disability claim, according to statistics from the VA. Some appeals take years. And when the local office does provide a response, more than one in four are erroneous, the highest percentage in the country.
Charles Hedrick of Eldersburg said he's fought the agency for disability benefits over the last two decades.
"We have to fight for it through various and sundry channels; in the long run we end up the losers," said Hedrick, an 82-year-old Army veteran who retired as a major after serving at the end of World War II and during the Korean conflict, Berlin crisis and Vietnam War.
He said his dealings with the Baltimore VA office have been a long process involving multiple claims related to Agent Orange exposure and heart disease, dependent benefits and injuries he suffered during combat in Korea. He has received some disability pay, but he's seeking additional benefits.
Hedrick worked as a commercial pilot after he retired from the Army in 1968, but he was permanently grounded after a heart attack that he said can be tied to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.
Maryland Reps. John P. Sarbanes, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Elijah Cummings and Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, joined the senators is calling the situation unacceptable.
"There is no acceptable excuse for denying veterans the benefits they have earned," Sarbanes said in a statement. "The [VA] must act now to improve service at their Baltimore office and I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that progress is made.
"We must also protect veterans' services from deep, across the board spending cuts proposed by some in Congress if we realistically expect any improvements to be sustained."
Ruppersberger said Congress must also continue to work with the VA to make sure the agency is "adequately staffed, has an efficient process and modern technology." He said the issue is also a matter of funding, a subject under the purview of Mikulski, who was recently appointed chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"One of my office's top priorities is working with local veterans caught in government red tape, so we know their frustrations first-hand," Ruppersberger said in a statement. "The situation is and has been unacceptable for years."
The delegation has petitioned the VA since at least spring of 2008 to pay wounded veterans, at a minimum, the benefits they're promised timely and efficiently. The agency recently implemented several initiatives to bolster performance at the Baltimore office, including establishing a quality review team to improve employee training, speed and quality, according to VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz.
The agency's goal is to complete all disability claims within 125 days, or about four months, with 98 percent accuracy. Currently, the national error rate is 13.7 percent.
"Fixing this decades-old problem isn't easy, but we have an aggressive plan that is on track, and we will work with members of Congress, and Veterans Service Organizations to see it through," Lutz said in a statement Monday.
VA Secretary Shinseki said as much in October 2011 after receiving a letter from the delegation about the persistent problems. Contributing to the problems locally, Shinseki said, was a drastic increase in disability claims and a loss of experienced staff when four senior managers left their positions.
"This does not excuse past performance, and you can be assured we are investing heavily in the oversight, training, process and technology necessary to meet the standards our veterans deserve," Shinseki wrote in the letter more than a year ago.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also expressed concern Monday. The mayor was "deeply troubled and disappointed by the findings, and the Veterans Administration must take swift action to clear the backlog of cases," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in a statement.
The chairmen of the House and Senate committees on Veterans' Affairs, Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, pledged Monday to fight on behalf of servicemen and servicewomen to see they receive the benefits they're promised.
"Many VA Regional Offices in larger cities suffer from the same problem that exists in Baltimore: high turnover among employees and management," Miller said in a statement. "This has a direct negative impact on office productivity and morale, leading to slower processing times.
"We are committed to improving benefits processing and speeding the delivery of benefits to our veterans across the country by investigating the turnover problems at urban VA facilities, exploring better training programs for VA employees and looking into incentives for employees who process claims in a timely and accurate manner."
Dorothy Olanoff of Reisterstown said her husband, Mark, died in October, about two years after he filed his disability claim with the VA.
Mark Olanoff, 63, died of leukemia related to Agent Orange exposure while he served in South Korea, his wife said. He retired from the Air Force after 28 years and went on to serve as a Washington lobbyist working on behalf of veterans.
Dorothy Olanoff, who worked for the VA's Baltimore office from 1976 to 1983, is now seeking survivor benefits from her husband's claim.
"I think it's a crime," she said. "Boy, I would like to be the boss of that VA and give them production standards and have them audited. Most of them wouldn't be there."
Cummings said servicemen and servicewomen deserve better.
"It is our nation's sacred duty to take care of our veterans and when the VA fails, we all fail," the Baltimore congressman said in a statement. "It is critical that the Baltimore VA now examine its procedures and implement processes that will ensure the needs of our veterans are met with the sense of urgency our veterans have earned."
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