Florida Veterans are caught In disability compensation appeals backlog. (Photo via MedillNSZ/Flickr)

Florida Veterans are caught In disability compensation appeals backlog. (Photo via MedillNSZ/Flickr)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

St. Petersburg tops a list of cities in the U.S. with the most pending disability claims for former service members.

Allsup, the company that compiled the list using data from the VA, said in a press release that “veterans with disabilities in Florida, Texas, California, Georgia and North Carolina are among those facing the longest lines of pending appeals for service-connected disabilities at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Regional Offices.”

Analysis by Allsup shows veterans disability compensation claims pending at the appeals level have increased by more than 78 percent since 2008. The increase of claims pending has grown an average of nearly 12.5 percent per year, with the largest jump-more than 21 percent-between 2009 and 2010.

Veterans appealing their compensation claims face multiple steps in the appeals process. The average wait was 270 days in fiscal year 2012 to receive another decision on their claim, reported by the VA as time between the filing of the Notice of Disagreement to the receipt of the Statement of the Case. At the next level-the Board of Veterans’ Appeals-the average wait from filing to disposition is 1,040 days for FY 2012. It can take some veterans up to five years to see their compensation claims resolved.

“It’s important that veterans understand that the appeals backlog continues to grow,” explained Brett Buchanan, an Army veteran and VA-accredited claims agent at the Allsup Veterans Disability Appeal ServiceSM. “This means that if their decision was denied or remanded, they could be in for a long wait if they appeal, and they may need to get help from a VA-accredited claims agent who has experience navigating the difficult VA disability process.”

Allsup helps veterans appeal disability claims, among  other services. Here’s the Allsup’s list of the cities with the most service-connected disability claims pending at the appeals level :

  1. St. Petersburg, Fla. – 22,581
  2. Houston – 16,725
  3. Atlanta – 14,334
  4. Waco, Texas – 14,268
  5. Winston-Salem, N.C. – 11,327
  6. Montgomery, Ala. – 11,014
  7. Cleveland – 9,647
  8. Roanoke, Va. – 8,169
  9. Oakland, Calif. – 7,750
  10. Columbia, S.C. – 7,378

In short, particular states around the country are having a significantly harder time moving things forward – and Florida is one of the worst states for this problem. According to Allsup: “by state, Texas has the most with 30,993 appeals pending at two ROs, followed by Florida, 22,581; California, 17,134 (at three ROs); Georgia, 14,334; and North Carolina, 11,327.”

In total, more than 253,000 veterans nationwide are waiting for their disability compensation appeals to be adjudicated. A News21 investigation from earlier this year looked in to the federal government’s “inability to distribute timely disability compensation to veterans with physical and mental injuries associated with their service – at a critical point in their transition home.”

The News21 investigation found that as the lengthy backlog of delayed and mishandled claims began to surge dramatically, more than two-thirds of the claims processors in the Department of Veterans Affairs collected more than $5.5 million in bonuses.

Claims workers were effectively encouraged, based on a performance “credit system,” to process less-complex claims first, leaving to languish those claims involving multiple war injuries and missing paperwork.

Complex claims, the workers said, require calling and sending follow-up letters to veterans and requesting federal documents and medical records, all of which received zero points on the Veterans Benefits Administration performance evaluation for processors until December 2012, when the system was changed.

And, of course, location disparities continue to be a problem, as well.