By Aaron Glantz
Center for Investigative Reporting
After seven months of delay, the Department of Veterans Affairs finally approved World War II veteran James Alderson's pension benefits last week.
But it was not a cause for celebration or relief for Alderson, whose life's work was the farm supply store he founded near Chico after returning home from the Battle of the Bulge.
The 89-year-old veteran had died three months earlier in a Yuba City nursing home.
"My father was a very proud person," Alderson's son, Kale, said. "Whenever I saw him, he would ask if I'd heard from the VA and whether his money would hold up. It really took a toll on him."
The VA's inability to pay benefits to veterans before they die is increasingly common, according to data obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The data reveals, for the first time, that long wait times are contributing to tens of thousands of veterans being approved for disability benefits and pensions only after it is too late for the money to help them.
In the fiscal year that ended in September, the agency paid $437 million in retroactive benefits to the survivors of nearly 19,500 veterans who died waiting. The figures represent a dramatic increase from three years earlier, when the widows, parents and children of fewer than 6,400 veterans were paid $7.9 million on claims filed before their loved one's death.
These veterans range from World War II veterans who die of natural causes without their pensions to Iraq war veterans who commit suicide after their disability claims for post-traumatic stress disorder are denied.
The ranks of survivors waiting for these benefits also have surged, from fewer than 3,000 in December 2009 to nearly 13,000 this month.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the data confirmed the worst fears of many veterans and members of Congress.
"The common refrain we hear from many veterans is, 'Delay, deny, wait till I die,' " said Miller, who called the burgeoning backlog of benefits claims a "national embarrassment."
Nationwide, 900,000 veterans and their families have been waiting about nine months for a decision, with veterans in California facing even longer waits. As of October, the most recent month for which numbers are available, the average wait time for a veteran was nearly 11 months in San Diego, 17 months in Oakland, and a year and a half in Los Angeles.
But in a conference call with the Center for Investigative Reporting, VA officials said that while the long delays generally were unacceptable, the growth in posthumous payments was not disturbing.
"It's a good thing that the VA pays benefits to honor the service of veterans and the sacrifices of their family members despite the fact that a veteran has unfortunately died," said Dave McLenachen, director of the agency's pension and fiduciary service.
Some veteran advocates say the number of survivors being approved for retroactive payments represents a fraction of the veterans who die waiting because grieving families must file paperwork with the agency to keep a claim from expiring with the veteran.
"You're just so exhausted and drained with the grief of losing a loved one that sometimes it's hard just to wake up in the morning, let alone navigate a complicated bureaucracy," said Bonnie Carroll, founder of the Washington-based nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
Delays tied to Agent Orange
In November, more than a year after Vietnam veteran John Conrad died of leukemia, the VA sent his widow a letter acknowledging his cancer was caused by exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
The decision marked a reversal for the agency, which had denied Conrad's claim for disability benefits for three years while the former Army specialist was still alive. The denials had come despite supporting medical opinions from a series of doctors, including the VA's own oncologist.
"We went through our savings and our retirement money. And then, after he died, they said they made a mistake and sent a check for $79,000," his widow, Linda Conrad, said in an interview at her home outside Phoenix.
By the time the VA reversed itself, the family home was in foreclosure. Linda Conrad, who had quit her job as a paralegal to care for her husband during his last days, found her efforts to secure a new job thwarted by the recession.
Yet, in an interview, the VA deemed John Conrad's saga a success, because the more experienced claims processors who handled Conrad's claim after his death had the authority to reinterpret the medical evidence.
"That's the way it's supposed to work," said Brad Flohr, assistant director for policy of the VA's compensation service.
VA officials say the agency's changing stance on Agent Orange claims is a major catalyst for the rise in posthumous payments. In 2010, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki issued a ruling granting benefits to 158,000 Vietnam veterans who suffered from ischemic heart disease, Parkinson's disease and two types of cancer - neither the kind of leukemia that killed John Conrad - that the agency previously had denied were caused by Agent Orange.
Officials said that decision, a response to a federal court ruling in Northern California, was responsible for about half of the payouts in 2012.
McLenachen attributed the threefold increase in the number of veterans who died awaiting disability and pension benefits to a different phenomenon: a 2008 law that streamlined the ability for survivors to petition the agency for compensation instead of forcing them to file a new claim.
That explanation doesn't resonate with members of Congress who have been increasingly frustrated with the delays veterans face in obtaining benefits.
"It's not plausible," said Rep. Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat and ranking member of the House subcommittee that oversees the VA's benefits bureaucracy. Even under the old system, McNerney said, survivors regularly filed claims for benefits that veterans had requested before they died.
Errors compound delays
Veteran advocates and family members of veterans who died waiting accuse the VA of callous indifference in denying legitimate benefits claims and deluging families with paperwork even as loved ones slip away. Chronic mistakes add to a feeling of abandonment.
A Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of 18 reports published this year by the VA's inspector general revealed auditors found mistakes in more than 1 in 3 high-profile claims they reviewed. In 2011, the Board of Veterans Appeals found errors in 73 percent of cases it decided, according to the board's annual report.
"The VA has a problem with errors and that lengthens the process and increases the chance that a veteran will die waiting," said Bart Stichman, co-director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides legal assistance to veterans and their families.
Iraq war veteran Scott Eiswert "gave up on life" after receiving a February 2008 letter from the VA denying his claim for post-traumatic stress disorder for the third time, according to his widow, Tracy Eiswert. Three months later, the 31-year-old Tennessee National Guardsman shot himself in the head.
Then, in August 2008, the VA reversed itself, sending Tracy Eiswert a letter stating that it "was clearly and unmistakably in error" for failing to grant her husband's disability claim. The agency sent a check for more than $10,000 to cover the disability benefits Scott Eiswert should have received while he was alive. The VA also deemed his suicide related to his military service, entitling his widow to a $1,195 monthly survivor's benefit.
"I was relieved to get the check, but if they would have done their job and given him the help he needed immediately, maybe this wouldn't have happened," Tracy Eiswert said.
This story was produced by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at cironline.org. Contact the reporter at email@example.com.