The process for getting health and financial benefits for veterans is taking longer than it ever has before.
Even with the lengthy process and overwhelming backlog of claims, Denton County Veterans Service office officials encourage all veterans to seek out the benefits owed to them for their military service.
“When I started this job four years ago, I could file a claim and expect results in three to six months. About a year later, that average went to six to 12 months,” said Paul Bastaich, Denton County Veterans Service officer.
Bastaich said that this past May he was told claims might take as long as 520 days to be processed.
“Over 45 percent of veterans are filing disability claims. That is unheard of. That is an all-time record,” Bastaich said.
Part of the reason for that is in 2009 the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released three new presumptive diseases to Agent Orange exposure: Parkinson’s, leukemia and heart disease. Those diseases added in another 400,000 claims nationwide, with some of those from veterans who hadn’t served in a number of years.
Bastaich said those three diseases have been given priority, with about 75 percent of VA staff across the country taken off normal claims and placed on those backlogs.
“Because our elected officials thought, in the best interest of veterans with terminal disease, those claims should take priority, they even created a fast-track claim system,” Bastaich said.
It meant that regular claims were stagnating.
Jeffery Molnar, a U.S. Army veteran, first filed his claim in 2011 immediately after his honorable discharge. While his claim is partially completed, he still has a few conditions that have not been evaluated, and he is waiting.
Molnar, now a sophomore computer science major at the University of North Texas, said that while it takes longer for veterans like him, he can understand the thought of prioritizing the older veterans.
“It’s kind of a crummy situation, but I think it’s appropriate they should be taking care of the guys who came first — I am still young; I still have plenty more years of dealing with the VA,” he said.
Molnar said there are a lot of veterans who do not know what benefits to which they are entitled, and some don’t have lengthy processing times.
He encouraged his fellow vets to at least visit the veterans service office.
“It doesn’t cost anything to go into Paul’s office and talk to them,” he said.
The Denton County Veterans Service office sees about 30 veterans a day, Bastaich said. There are 48,000 veterans in Denton County, yet only 18,957 of those vets have been in his office, he said.
Despite the backlog, Bastaich said that if a veteran has a disability, it’s best to file claims as soon as possible.
Bastaich said the VA is working hard to come up with new processes such as electronic filing and electronic copying of health records, but it will take time before these have an impact on the current backlog of claims.
“The VA knows the system is broken right now due to the backlog — they are trying to make the process simpler, more efficient and more time-effective. But it is not going to fix anything immediately,” he said.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .