‘The toughest fight of them all’

Published 8:20 pm Saturday, July 12, 2014

At his North Suffolk home, Navy veteran David Byers inspects the paper trail of his benefits claim with the VA. An email released after an open-records request suggests part of his claim was fast-tracked in response to a reporter’s inquiry on his behalf.

At his North Suffolk home, Navy veteran David Byers inspects the paper trail of his benefits claim with the VA. An email released after an open-records request suggests part of his claim was fast-tracked in response to a reporter’s inquiry on his behalf.

About 10 weeks ago, lost in the bowels of a notoriously inefficient bureaucracy, David Byers could have been North Suffolk’s most frustrated citizen.

Leafing through the paper trail, he recounted a struggle to obtain disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs that had gone on for more than three years.

The electronics technician retired from the U.S. Navy with honors after serving his country for 24 years.

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“I have all 10 fingers and all 10 toes, but my issues are not outwardly visible,” Byers said of his disability.

“All my stuff is internal — I have memory issues. That’s why I try as hard as I can to write everything down.”

He filed the first portion of his claim to the regional office in Roanoke on Dec. 21, 2010, according to emails released by the VA after a Freedom of Information Act request.

That was 10 days before he reported for duty for the final time.

After it was transferred to the Winston-Salem office because Byers showed a residential address in North Carolina, the initial claim was completed a year and a half later. His disability rating was 80 percent.

But there was a hitch, and Byers waited another month and a half for his retroactive pay. “Retroactive benefits were withheld due to receipt of Military Retired Pay,” an email says.

The next, final step was a dependency allowance — Byers says his wife, also a military veteran, has a 90-percent disability rating. He said he was asked to resubmit his paperwork “even though nothing had changed.”

Almost two years later, still waiting for that retroactive pay to come through, Byers said their savings had gone from “a very comfortable amount to we-really-don’t-have-a-lot-left.”

“I’m in limbo, and it’s very frustrating,” he said.

Getting nowhere with the VA, Byers reached out to Sen. Tim Kaine, and after inquiring on his behalf, Kaine’s office received an email from the Winston-Salem regional office on May 1 that didn’t offer much hope:

“We anticipate that it may be a significant amount of time for this review to be complete,” the email stated.

The Suffolk News-Herald inquired about the claim the same day Kaine’s office received this email, and the retroactive funds were released the following day.

Byers’ dependency claim was actually completed in September 2013, according to the VA emails, but retroactive benefits were withheld again, for the same reason as last time: “Due to receipt of Military Retired Pay.” Plus, Byers’ records were flagged for an audit in October.

The emails indicate that as the widely publicized scandal over veterans dying while awaiting VA health care intensified, the director of the Winston-Salem Regional Benefits Office fast-tracked Byers’ claim in response to the press scrutiny it had attracted.

“Please have someone take a look at this and get info to (redacted) 2:30. Sorry for the short turn-around. I know we are behind in our non-rating work so have them work it if warrented (sic),” Cheryl Rawls wrote to a redacted recipient on May 2, just after she was forwarded the Suffolk News-Herald’s questions.

Ninety-eight minutes later, a synopsis of Byers’ claim emailed to Rawls noted, “We completed his claim today.”

Byers believes that the media attention spurred the finalization of his claim, especially given the unfavorable response Kaine’s office received only hours before. “I just really feel that it would still be in limbo today if (the newspaper) hadn’t made that call,” he said.

Byers has been far from the only veteran enmeshed in the VA’s outdated system. Through the reporting period current when his claim was finalized, claims still in the system initially seeking a disability rating had been pending for an average 161 days, and the average completion time was 248 days.

However, inroads are being made. The VA’s latest status report shows the backlog of claims more than 125 days stands at about 274,000, down by well over half from its highest point 15 months ago.

Fulltime employees at the center that processed Byers’ claim have increased from 330 in 2008 to 380 in March, according to the emails. At the end of April, the average dependency claim in Winston-Salem was pending for 357 days — 50 days more than the national average.

To tackle the backlog, 13 new staff members processing non-rating claims — like the one for which Byers waited almost two years to be finalized — were added in April 2013, bringing the total to 21.

Byers said he was promised the benefits that he had to fight to receive “when I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America against enemies both foreign and domestic.”

“I fought harder to get that than any battle in the 24 years of service to my country,” he said.