Local organizations that assist military veterans with benefits claims spoke in favor Friday of a system that automatically awards full amounts if the process bogs down in bureaucratic red tape.
Congressman Randy Hultgren invited the organizations to a brainstorming session at his Geneva district office on how to reduce the backlogs that have been getting national attention. Much of the criticism has focused on health care for veterans.
But local veterans assistance commission members said Friday the waiting times aren't much better for processing compensation claims associated with wounds, disabilities or illnesses stemming from military service.
The suggestion that evoked the most head nodding at the meeting came from Don Sender, vice president of the DuPage County Veterans Assistance Commission. Sender suggested a system that defaults in favor of veterans when the claims process stalls.
"The process should be, if you have gone this far and nothing has happened, you win," Sender said. "Then go back to the organizations involved, say who is the person who was sitting on this for six months, fire him, and tell him he can't reapply for a job in the government for two years.
"If that wouldn't scare the hell out of people, and make them work harder, I don't know what will."
Julio A. "Tony" Vela, veterans service center manager of the Chicago Regional Benefits Office of the Veterans Affairs, said there has been a nationwide push for more than a year to reduce the number of benefit claims still pending in the system.
At the start of that push, the Chicago office had almost 23,000 claims pending. About 980 of those claims were two years old. And the average time for processing a claim stood at 381 days.
"That was just way too high," Vela said.
Some of that caseload was farmed out to offices with a lesser burden. The Chicago office is paying out $75 million in benefits per month to Illinois veterans.
With the added assistance, the number of pending claims now stands at 9,630. The average waiting time is 149 days.
Vela said the best way to speed a claim through the system is submit all disabilities claims and medical evidence supporting military connections to those disabilities or injuries at the same time.
That was welcome news for the veterans assistance commission members. But one of their biggest gripes stemmed from the much longer waiting times associated with appeals.
Benefits claims that are denied, in full or part, are subject to appeal. But that's a multi-step process that includes a review board in Washington, D.C.
Commission members said they've seen delays as long as five years.
Vela expressed surprise that any appeal would take that long. He said the average length of an appeal in his office is 438 days. But commission members cited news reports showing the average appeal time is 1,528 days.
"That's more in line with what we're seeing out in the field," said Jake Zimmerman of Kane County's Veterans Assistance Commission.
Vela encouraged anyone with problems of that magnitude to have Hultgren's staff contact him.
"I can make things happen pretty quickly in my office," Vela said. "I have a big hammer."
Commission members said many of the appeals wouldn't be necessary if the doctors doing the initial exams associated with the claims were better trained on how to validate whether an injury is associated with military service.
Vela said he keeps two doctors right in his office to try to sort out the frequent conflicts in medical terminology and diagnosis standards.
Hultgren said part of the pending legislation he supports would allow a veteran who has been on a waiting list and not getting a response for a certain length of time to receive care at a private medical facility that would be reimbursed by the government.