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Politics

Angus King Co-sponsors Bill to Help Clear VA Appeals Backlog

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Patty Wight
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Maine Public
Angus King at a press conference in Auburn on Tuesday.

About 450,000 veterans have pending appeals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and it often takes years for them to be resolved. The wait could stretch even longer, according to a federal report, unless the VA updates its procedures.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine is a co-sponsor of legislation that aims to fix the problem. If passed, it would be the first update to the VA appeals process in decades.

Larry Howe is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. During his service, he says he sometimes saw what looked like crop dusters flying off the coast, and later found out they were spreading Agent Orange.

Howe’s exposure to the chemical caught up to him in 1999, he says, when he had a heart attack. The next year, he had a quintuple bypass. Then in 2011 and 2012, he had arteries bypassed in both legs.

“Every time I went in, I was told it’s ischemic, which is a derivative of Agent Orange,” he says.

Howe filed a disability claim with the VA, but says he was denied.

“I was told, ‘You didn’t have boots on the ground,’” he says.

But Howe says other shipmates have successfully filed claims. He appealed, but he says he’s been on a backlog for years.

“A little while ago, I was 10 months behind. They said they caught up to where they’re 10 months behind. The last one I got, they fell back to a year now. So now we’re going on the 6th year — actually, the 7th year,” he says.

Howe, who appeared with other veterans and King at a press conference in Auburn, has been working with local American Legion Service Officer Dao Lauria to get his appeal resolved.

Lauria says multiply Howe’s story by 450,000, the number of other veterans in appeals limbo, and you get a picture of the what the process is like.

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Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Larry Howe (left) and Deo Lauria

“Think of it as 100 lanes of traffic. Think of how many VAs there are out there, culminating in Washington, D.C., at the Board of Veterans Appeals,” he says.

Part of the problem, Lauria says, is that the appeals process hasn’t been updated since 1933.

According to a Government Accountability Office report from March, veterans have to wait an average of 3-5 years for an appeal to be resolved. Without changes, the GAO projects that will grow to a more than an 8 year wait, which King says is unacceptable.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he says.

King is co-sponsoring a bill that he says would cut through red tape and make the process more efficient.

“It’s very simple, really. It divides appeals into three categories and puts the claims into a category that will be able to move faster,” he says.

The bill has 18 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats or independents. But King says a similar bill in the House has bipartisan support.

“I think this is one where we ought to be able to put party aside, get this resolved,” he says.

Resolution is what Vietnam vet Dominick Iannotti Jr. is hoping for. He says he applied for disability due to PTSD in 2007, but was denied. He was approved 5 years later, but is still waiting for action on an appeal seeking retroactive benefits.

“I’m working so hard to get something I’m entitled to, I think, and my wife’s entitled to, and it’s made such a difficult thing to do. And that’s hard. It’s very hard,” he says.

Though King is optimistic that Congress will approve a bill to modernize the appeals process at the VA, he says staffing remains a problem, as there are some 700 job vacancies within the department.