The long wait for VA compensation

Sally Schilling/Daily Journal Mike Mewkalo, 86, of Millbrae, waited years for his disability compensation from the VA.

After dedicating their lives serving their country in the military, many veterans assume their country will then jump at the chance to help them out in their own time of need. But many veterans who suffer from disabilities after serving in the military are finding that they must wait years to receive compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mike Mewkalo, 86, of Millbrae, served 23 and a half years in the U.S. military.

When he submitted a claim for his heart disease with the VA Regional Office in Oakland in October 2010, he figured he would receive a decision, or a “rating,” on his disability within a few months.

“I thought maybe in two months they would have this all straightened out,” said Mewkalo of the VA.

He has suffered three heart attacks and had two open-heart surgeries. His heart condition was the result of decades of strenuous, dirty work in the Army and Air Force, he said.

Along with serving in the Philippines during World War II, Mewkalo served in Japan during the Korean War and in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

“I put my life on the line in three wars. I was subject to go up to the front line, but they kept me in the back supplying the troops up front,” he said. “I was always wondering when am I going to go up to the front line, to fight the Japanese, the Vietnamese, the Germans.”

Mewkalo, 86, got a decision from the VA on his disability claim on June 2 — more than two years after he submitted his claim.

He was happy to finally get a decision, but felt like after sending in his paperwork multiple times, the VA was stringing him along.

“The VA wants you to pass away so they can close the case,” he said.

Mewkalo’s brother, who was in the Air Force, submitted a claim with the VA for a knee injury. Some heavy equipment was dropped on his knee while it was being loaded onto an airplane. He couldn’t walk well and had surgery.

“My brother died two and a half years ago at age 81, and he never got it,” he said. “He had his claim in for nine years.”

Help from congresswoman

Last year, when Mewkalo was frustrated with waiting on the VA, he decided to contact U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo. Speier’s office has worked hard to expedite veteran’s disability claims. This year, Speier has already helped secure $1 million for veterans with disability claims, including back pay, according to Speier’s office.

Even with the help of Speier’s office, Mewkalo’s claim was still stuck in the backlog at regional office in Oakland.

This year, Mewkalo learned that his claim was shipped out to Lincoln, Neb. Moving the claim out of Oakland’s backlog helped get the ball rolling, said Speier’s office.

But Mewkalo kept getting letters from Lincoln requesting the same medical records he had already sent to Oakland.

“I wrote a letter to Lincoln, Neb. and said, ‘ask Oakland for my medical, they have all my records,’” he said.

He was stressed out with the constant records requests and lack of response from the VA.

“It was a bummer what I had to do,” he said. “I got nervous. I got sick [trying] to get all that information [to the VA].”

Speier weighs in

Congress has increased the VA’s budget by 40 percent for more staffing and money for veterans’ compensation, said Speier. The backlog of claims is slowly getting smaller, she said.

“There’s been a huge change in the last year,” she said. “[But] even with all the money we’ve thrown at this problem, even with all the cases shifted to other sites, I’m still unsatisfied.”

When hearing about the outsourcing of claims, Speier said the VA is still not completely paperless, which is problematic, especially when claims are being contracted out to other offices.

“They’re still dealing with paper files,” she said. “I want to be optimistic and say that once these files turn to electronic format we’ll be able to keep up with the demand.”

The backlog was exacerbated by an inattentiveness to the issue, said Speier. With Vietnam veterans learning more about their eligibilities for claims associated with Agent Orange, and many veterans falling on tough economic times, the VA has been hit with a surge of new claims, not to mention the veterans now coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who often have multiple claims.

“It’s not just one condition, it’s six or seven now,” said Speier, acknowledging the challenging situation for the VA.

Speier has been able to push claims through for veterans. Last year, she helped get $3 million in compensation to veterans.

When she hears someone complain about the veterans filing faulty claims, she said that’s beside the point.

“These people have already given to this country and we owe them,” she said. “I am not going to challenge their claim.”

If veterans who have been waiting several months to hear from the VA call their representative in Congress, their claims will be expedited, she said.

But for Mewkalo, even with the advocacy of Speier’s office, he still had nine months to wait before getting a decision.

VA tackles backlog

The VA recently announced that it has worked through 97 percent of claims pending longer than two years. The accomplishment is the result of an initiative launched in April to expedite all of the oldest claims at VA offices across the nation.

With a flurry of incoming claims, thousands of backlogged cases and an antiquated filing system, the Oakland VA Regional Office is still working through its backlog.

The Oakland office announced it recently completed decisions on 14,688 claims pending longer than two years, according to a press release.

Some two-year-old claims are still outstanding due to unique circumstances such as unavailability of the veteran for a needed medical exam, said the release.

“Over the past two months, VA has been dedicated to providing earned benefits to the veterans who have waited the longest,” Douglass Bragg, Oakland regional office director said in the release. “I’m proud of our employees, who have been working long hours on this effort.”

The VA’s goal is to eliminate the backlog of claims pending longer than 125 days by 2015, with 98 percent accuracy.

Rushed decision?

In June, the VA finally rated Mewkalo at 10 percent, meaning he gets $395 per month in compensation from the VA for his heart condition, or so he thought.

Mewkalo was surprised to learn that the VA would not pay him compensation on top of his pension.

“They should, but they don’t do that,” he said. “I thought they did.”

Instead, his compensation comes in the form of $395 of his retirement pay being tax-free, he said.

Along with the realization that he would not receive any new compensation on top of his retirement, Mewkalo said the fact that he did not get back pay was unfair.

“I should get retroactive pay all the way to when I submitted [my claim] in 2010,” he said.

The low rating was also disappointing, he said.

“I thought it would be at least 50 percent or more, because of what I had to put up with,” he said. “I developed this heart condition when I was in the service.”

Veterans with claims pending longer than 125 days can call Speier’s office: (650) 342-0300.

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