VA won’t say how many veterans die waiting for disability benefits

How many veterans die annually while they wait for the embattled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to approve their claim for disability benefits? The answer: The VA won’t say.

In half a dozen calls and emails, The Baltimore Sun asked the VA over a period of about two weeks for information about its backlog to process disability claims for American veterans — and the consequences of the delays on servicemen and servicewomen.

The Sun’s report showed the Baltimore office, which handles claims for all of Maryland’s 450,000 veterans, is the worst performing in the country. The local office was the slowest and had the highest error rate in the U.S., according to latest information available.

The VA has made strides in improving transparency and access to information with an interactive online database of processing times and error rates called ASPIRE. The agency also created an online portal called eBenefits for veterans to learn the latest status on their claims, although many find it confusing and the information it provides not timely.

The ASPIRE Dashboard was integral in producing the Sun investigation. But it couldn’t answer all the questions, most notably, the number of veterans who die before the agency approves or denies their claim.

Nearly 19,500 veterans died from October 2011 to September 2012, the federal fiscal year, while they waited for benefits, according to an article published in San Francisco’s Bay Citizen. That figure is based on the $437 million in retroactive benefits paid to the survivors of the deceased veterans, according to the report. The number of veterans who died waiting during that period is likely higher.

The VA did not respond to repeated requests to provide the figure for veterans whose claims were pending at the time of their death. When pressed on the existence of the data, an agency spokeswoman said the retroactive benefits paid to survivors “aren’t necessarily cases where veterans died while waiting for their benefits.” No further explanation was provided.

The number of deceased veterans with outstanding claims increased as the backlog did, the California newspaper reported. This year, more than 900,000 veterans have outstanding disability claims, which take an average of nine months to process nationally and nearly 12 months at the Baltimore office, according to VA statistics.

In addition to the lack of information on deceased veterans, the agency would also not provide the number of VA managers and senior-level staff members who were removed from positions, retrained or reprimanded because of the ongoing problems, among other information.