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New York VA center one of slowest to process veterans' claims

Vietnam War veteran Paul Plante of Huntington poses

Vietnam War veteran Paul Plante of Huntington poses for a portrait at the VFW Post 3211 in Hicksville Monday where Congressman Steve Israel announced legislation that would force the VA to pay claims automatically if they are not handled within the VA's 125-day target. (April 29, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

The New York-area center that processes veterans' disability claims is one of the slowest in the country, taking nearly four times longer than the Department of Veterans Affairs' targeted schedule, federal data show.

Veterans filing disability claims for ailments such as bomb blast brain injuries, spinal fractures, post-traumatic stress disorder or maladies related to Agent Orange exposure wait an average 480 days before the claim is processed at the department's Manhattan office.

The VA's target for handling claims is 125 days. As of April 27, 11,914 claims were pending in the New York office. Nearly three-quarters of them languished longer than 125 days.

Paul Plante said he waited nearly two years for a response.

Plante, 63, a Vietnam War vet, filed the claim with the Manhattan office when he could no longer hold a job as a painter because Type 2 diabetes left him with no feeling in his lower left leg.

But despite nearly two years of repeated inquiries, the Huntington resident got no answer until his congressman, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), had his staff call the VA on his behalf.

"My income was cut two-thirds, and if it weren't for my wife, I would have been on welfare," Plante said. "It was extremely frustrating, because I couldn't get anyone at the VA on the phone. And when I did, the answer was always the same: 'We're working on your case, we'll get done with it as soon as possible.' "

Monday, Israel announced legislation that would force the VA to grant an automatic 40 percent disability rating and the corresponding provisional benefits to any veteran who has waited more than 125 days to have a disability claim decided.

"The VA must do better," Israel said.

In the past year, the VA has come under withering criticism from veterans groups and members of Congress for delays in handling claims.

Monday, the VA announced it was withholding performance bonuses for senior officials who oversee disability claims, citing their failure to reduce a large processing backlog. Currently, there are more than 882,400 claims waiting to be processed. Sixty-nine percent of them have missed the VA's target processing date.

VA data also shows that nearly 14 percent of claims decisions handed down by the New York office contain errors in processing. The VA's target error rate is 2 percent.

Veterans who appeal erroneous decisions also typically wait years.

Israel said more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has created "a tidal wave" of veterans claims that threatens to overwhelm the VA's ability to respond. "In fact, it's happening now, but it's going to get worse," Israel said. "The VA is not equipped to deal with that kind of volume."

Repeated calls to the VA for comment went unreturned.

A statement on a VA website said: "While VA completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year in fiscal years 2010, 2011, and 2012, the number of claims received continues to exceed the number processed."

Delayed claims have especially serious consequences for Iraq or Afghanistan veterans, who often lack established jobs and have fewer resources than older veterans, said Tireak Tulloch, a Long Island spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national advocacy group.

Delayed claims can prevent veterans who otherwise would qualify from receiving medical care from VA hospitals, said Paul Sullivan, a spokesman for Bergmann and Moore, a Washington area law firm handling veterans claims.

"This is very real and very serious," Sullivan said. "For some of them, it can be tragic."