William J. Rogers Post 153 member, Peter Rogers, of Yarmouth, talks with Senator Angus King in Auburn Tuesday afternoon at the American Legion Post before King spoke to a group of veterans about his efforts and those needed by veterans to help the Passage of a bill to overhaul broken VA appeals process. The Auburn post was named after his father, William Rogers.
Forty years ago, Larry Howell served aboard the USS Newport News, a heavy cruiser that spent the fall of 1967 shelling targets along the coast of Vietnam.
Along the way, it plowed through clouds of dust that sailors later discovered consisted mostly of Agent Orange, a herbicide that stripped away vegetation and wound up causing serious long-term health problems for millions of soldiers and civilians exposed to it.
The Standish veteran said Tuesday that he was one of those who suffered, experiencing heart issues that doctors linked to his service.
After the Veterans Administration initially rejected his claim years ago, he filed an appeal — a plea that has gone unheard even though federal officials in the meantime have begun to pay out automatically for other cases on his ship.
It turns out that 427,000 people have appeals pending. Their average wait time is more than three years, according to a 2015 General Accounting Office study. About 81,000 veterans had been waiting more than five years for a decision.
That kind of delay, U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said, “is just inexcusable.”
King told several dozen veterans gathered at the American Legion’s William J. Rogers Post 153 in Auburn that a bill introduced recently offers a way to revamp the appeals process at little cost in a bid to speed it up.
When a former service member doesn’t agree with an initial decision by the Veterans Benefits Administration about the eligibility of a disabling condition — cases that can mean thousands of dollars monthly for some veterans — there’s an option to appeal.
But that appeals process, the GAO report said, “is fundamentally broken.”
The proposed legislation would tackle some of the problems found by the GAO by trying to streamline decision-making and ease the way for veterans who want to present additional evidence for their appeal.
Much of it is focused on administrative changes that supporters say will help reduce the backlog and help the agency keep up with demands.
Amedeo Lauria, a service officer for Maine veterans, said the VA has “an incredibly archaic tracking system” for appeals that’s so complicated King said nobody understands it.
Veterans who are pursuing a claim “just want an answer,” Lauria said, but instead find themselves “stuck in this limbo” within a bureaucracy that is so undermanned and overwhelmed that it can’t help.
The appeals process hasn’t been thoroughly overhauled since its introduction in 1933, supporters said, and needs one badly.
King said the agency also needs to fill nearly 700 vacant positions so there’s enough staff to keep cases moving along, another suggestion the GAO made. Without more staff, the GAO found, delays of more than eight years will be the rule by 2026.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Appeals Modernization Act has 17 co-sponsors, all of them Democrats except for King and fellow independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It was first introduced last September but didn’t get anywhere in the final weeks of the last congressional session.
King and other senators are hoping the measure will have more traction this year.
“I don’t really think there’s much controversy about it,” King said. “We ought to be able to put politics aside.”
King said some Republicans in the House are already on board. He said he plans to talk soon with the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson, about the measure.
“I hope we have the horsepower behind it to get it through,” Lauria said.
Howell hopes they meet with success.
“I’d like to be living for a few years” after his case is finally resolved, he said, especially since he is confident that once someone looks at it, they will realize that Agent Orange claims for sailors on the ship on which he served are now granted automatically.
His problem is that he asked too soon. And so Howell waits. And waits. And waits.
Larry Howell is introduced to the crowd assembled inside William J. Rogers Post 153 American Legion in Auburn Tuesday afternoon.