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Tampa Veterans Advocate Headed To VA Employee Rally In SC To Fight For Benefits

Posted Aug 21, 2012 by Howard Altman

Updated Aug 21, 2012 at 02:21 PM

Leo Dougherty, who served as a Navy radioman second class petty officer, has been a long-time advocate for veterans rights. Friday morning, he is heading out of Tampa to take part in the American Federation of Government Employees rally in Columbia, SC being held Saturday.

The rally is the second information rally held by AFGE union members who are veterans rating specialists, working on claims for the Veterans Administration.

I asked Dougherty if he could offer some insight into why he is going and what’s at stake, in his mind, for veterans.

Here’s what he was kind enough to offer up:

This will be the second informational rally by AFGE union members who are veterans rating specialists in Columbia, SC. Perhaps the greatest frustration for veterans seeking benefits they are entitled to is the lengthy period of time it takes to be awarded benefits. The general consensus is that the current backlog of VA claims is very near one million claims. Consequently it is taking 2, 3, and more years if a claim is appealed to the Board of Veterans Appeals and even more if it has to be appealed to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

One of the issues raised in the first rally was that VA was not sufficiently training decision makers on new case law, changing regulations, or policy. Memos are issued but unfortunately once issued from Central Office in Washington, DC, they are implemented (or not) in various ways at each of the regional offices around the country. So, if RO A decides a claim for benefits favorably, RO B may decide the same or similar claim unfavorably based on whether it circulated a Central Office memo or conducted training on the issue. This wastes administrative time that could be better utilized by the ratings specialists to work on additional claims.

Another issue was the reassignment to other duties temporarily that takes time away from ratings specialists that could be used on claims processing.

One of the issues pointed out in this rally’s brochure was Veterans Benefits Administration Senior Executive bonuses. The below information is taken from the brochure:

2006 39 bonuses $764,780
2007 40 bonuses $895,118
2008 36 bonuses $610,928
2009 33 bonuses $509,204
2010 34 bonuses $664,043

Bonuses, payments not truly well known in the veterans’ community and the advocates’ community until several years ago, have become a bone of contention for veterans and advocates. In 5 years the Veterans Benefits Administration has paid out over $3 million in bonuses and yet veterans who reach out to the Veterans Benefits Administration - the arm of the VA responsible for deciding disability benefits claims - are waiting longer and longer to have claims decided.

Let me give you some background on me and then I’ll tell you why I am going to SC to support these employees.

I began working for the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs in 1986. I worked as a veterans counselor and as a senior veterans counselor. In 1998 I moved to Topeka, KS as a case manager for Attorney Ken Carpenter. His practice is focused almost entirely on veterans disability law. After my retirement I didn’t do much but advise veterans about the process. However when the law was changed to allow attorneys and agents to enter into fee agreements to represent veterans in 2007 I took the agent’s test again and became accredited once again. I have represented a few veterans here and there on appeals since then and was sad to see little or no change in the quality of decisions veterans receive.

I am going to Columbia to support those employees who are standing up and challenging the VA to do a better job. As someone who has been critical of the VA in a public Internet forum for veterans, I realize broad stroke criticism paints everyone the same, even those who are genuinely trying to do the job correctly. I owe those employees my support because they are truly trying to help veterans and, as I’ve often thought, are not being trained sufficiently and otherwise not being given the tools to do the job in a timely and quality manner. It takes a certain amount of courage to stand up against one’s employer in a cabinet level department as large as the VA. I believe that advocates as well as employees can and should stand shoulder to shoulder in support of veterans so I’m willing to spend the 7 or 8 hours on the road driving up to stand with those employees. Even if the only outcome is to make the point that the only true issue is making sure veterans are, as VA’s policy demonstrates, receiving every benefit they are entitled to under the law it will have been worth it to me.

Not to get too far afield, but I want to add my own opinion on the most important reason for the backlog of claims. That reason is that some of the same errors from years ago are still being made today. The proof of this is, in just my opinion, in the number or remands by the Board of Veterans Appeals to the regional offices, and by the Court of Appeals to the Board of Veterans Appeals. Court remands to the Board often wind back up at the regional offices for additional work not completed or incorrectly completed the first time. Any time you have to do the same work over you have to delay action on another claim. Often remands are multiple in the same appeal. Attorneys and agents call the claims process the hamster wheel. Veterans say it’s delay and deny until I die.

This trip may be an exercise in futility on my part but I believe strongly enough in what those employees are doing that I am willing to make the drive just to show my support.

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