Midlands veterans await $21 million from VA

Claims could boost local economy, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin says

jwilkinson@thestate.comDecember 13, 2012 

— An estimated 23,000 veterans in Columbia and Richland County are awaiting $21 million in benefits annually from the Veterans Administration – money that would be pumped into the local economy if a decision on those claims could be made more quickly.

That is the finding of a committee set up by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin to find ways to get that money flowing.

“We can help vets, which is the right thing to do,” he said. “But it also stimulates our economy.”

According the report from the Mayor’s Veteran’s Committee:

•  At the end of August, 23,282 veterans were waiting for a response on their VA claims from the Columbia office – a 12 percent increase over 2011.

•  It takes nine months for a veteran to receive a response from the office on an initial claim, a 24 percent increase over the year before.

•  It can take up to 31/2-years for the VA to make a decision on an appeal.

•  And there is currently an eight-month backlog of claims at the office.

Douglas Rosinski, an attorney specializing in VA claims who served as chairman of the mayor’s committee, said that the target for processing a claim is eight months; but, 80 percent to 90 percent of those claims have errors so the veteran has to go through an appeals process, which can take from two to five years.

“It’s a rare, rare bird that puts in a claim and gets it without some kind of an appeal,” he said. “And it’s all paper driven with archaic rules.”

Rosinski said the number of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is swelling the number of claims, which include veterans from the Gulf War, Vietnam and even World War II.

“It is just getting more and more bureaucratic,” he said.

While there are several veterans’ service organizations like the American Legion and state and county veterans affairs officers that assist veterans in filling out claims, a city initiative should provide a higher level of legal advice and expertise to meet the VA’s definition of a “fully developed” claim that would be more readily accepted by the VA. That could be accomplished by partnering with local attorneys.

“I don’t want to create another level of bureaucracy,” Rosinski said.

A starting point would be to appoint a Veterans Ombudsman and establish a liaison between the city and the VA, the report said.

Benjamin said he hasn’t yet decided how best to assist the veterans, but would develop a plan early next year.

“Our job is to make sure they get this money,” he said. “And I’m going to recommend we spend money on new programs.”

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