Family members of nearly 19,500 veterans who died while they waited for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to complete a review of their disability benefits claim collected $436.9 million last year, according to information the agency provided Friday.
That is more than four times the money, $108.5 million, provided to the family members of 10,900 deceased veterans in the federal fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2011. Agency spokeswoman Megan Lutz said the dramatic increase is primarily due to a change in benefits eligibility for Agent Orange exposure.
The agency released the numbers after repeated requests from The Baltimore Sun, which published an article Jan. 27 that showed the agency’s Baltimore office is the worst performing in the country.
The local office, which handles claims for all of Maryland, was the slowest and had the highest error rate in the U.S., according to latest information available.
"To ensure that a grateful nation fully recognized a veteran's service, Congress authorized VA to pay benefits that were due and unpaid at the time of the veteran's death to a surviving family member or any other person who bore the expense of the veteran's last sickness or burial," Lutz said.
In 2008, Lutz said, Congress amended a statute that allowed a family member of a deceased veteran to complete the veteran’s pending claim and receive the benefits the servicemen or servicewoman earned. Previously, the "accrued benefits" were paid based on the evidence the VA had when the veteran died.
Lutz said the agency does not specifically track the number of veterans who have died while waiting for a decision on their disability claims. The figures released represent the number of individual family members who collect the accrued benefits in 2011 and 2012 on behalf of the veterans who died.
The number of accrued benefits claims is expected to drop going forward because of the large number of claims for conditions tied to Agent Orange exposure for deceased veterans that have already been processed, Lutz said.
In addition to seeking information on veterans who died with pending disability claims, The Sun looked into why some 900,000 veterans are waiting for a decision on their disability claims — and the consequences of the delays on servicemen and servicewomen.
Nationally, the average wait is nine months. In Baltimore, it’s nearly 12 months.
The VA has made strides in improving transparency and access to information with an interactive online database of processing times and error rates called ASPIRE. The agency also created an online portal called eBenefits for veterans to learn the latest status on their claims, although many find it confusing and the information it provides not timely.
The ASPIRE Dashboard was integral in researching The Sun article. But it couldn’t answer all the questions, most notably, the number of veterans who die before the agency approves or denies their claim.
The VA already had the data on-hand, as it was first published by San Francisco’s Bay Citizen in a December article. It was unclear why the agency took more than two weeks to provide the information to The Sun.