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Holiday mailing deadlines announced

SUN Columnist

The Navy has released the deadlines for mailing cards, letters and packages for arrival before Christmas Day.

Customers should contact their local or civilian or military post office for details about size and weight restrictions.

Here is the list:

APO/FPO/DPO AE zips 090-098 (except 093); AA zips 340; AP zips 962-966.

• Express Mail: Dec. 17.

• First-Class Mail (letters/cards and priority mail): Dec. 10.

• Parcel Airlift Mail: Dec. 3.

• Space Available Mail: Nov. 26.

• Parcel Post: Nov. 12.

APO/FPO/DPO AE ZIP 093.

• Express mail Military Service: N/A.

• First-Class Mail (letters/cards and priority mail): Dec. 3.

• Parcel Airlift Mail: Dec. 3.

• Space Available Mail: Nov. 26.

• Parcel Post: Nov. 12.

For mail addressed from all shore FPOs (except 093).

• Express Mail Military Service: Dec. 17.

• First-Class Mail (letters/cards and priority mail): Dec. 10.

• Parcel Airlift Mail: Dec. 3.

• Space Available Mail: Nov. 26.

VA claims

As the Obama administration touts its recent progress in reducing the enormous backlog of veterans’ disability claims, a second backlog is rarely mentioned.

More than a quarter-million veterans are appealing disability-claim decisions they say are wrong, and in some cases they can wait four years or more for a ruling, figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs show.

The 256,061 veterans appealing decisions represent an approximately 50 percent increase since President Obama took office. And more are coming. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which makes the final administrative decisions on appeals, expects its number of pending cases to double over the next four years. The appeals backlog has grown partly because VA has directed resources away from appeals and toward the high-profile disability backlog, according to interviews with VA workers and veterans’ advocates.

“VA is robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Glenn Bergmann, a former appellate litigator in VA’s Office of the General Counsel who now frequently represents veterans on disability-claim appeals.

VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki acknowledged in an interview last week that appeals do not get the same emphasis as new claims, but said that will change as the backlog shrinks.

“Yes, there is a need to focus on appeals,” Shinseki said. “This is an elephant. You have to take bites one at a time.” In recent months, amid criticism from Congress and the media, the department took dramatic steps to attack the claims backlog. It mandated overtime for new claims and directed that disability cases older than one year be moved to the front of the line. Gerald Manar, deputy national veterans service director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said VA officials at regional offices often make a “calculated decision” to pull workers off appeals and redirect them to new claims. “Over the last three years or so, every time VA has made a push, they pull almost all of the employees out of appeals and into front-end work,” said Manar, a former VA benefits manager.

Beth McCoy, assistant deputy undersecretary for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said VA headquarters has directed regional offices not to take workers off appeals.

“It’s tempting to take those appeals resources,” she said. “But that wasn’t our intent, and we continue to reinforce that.” A veteran who takes an appeal through all available administrative steps faces an average wait of 1,598 days (over 4 years), according to VA figures for 2012. If the veteran pursues the case outside VA to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, it takes an additional 321 days on average, according to court documents. The duration in part reflects the fact that the process is meant to favor the veteran, who is allowed at any time to submit new evidence and thus extend a case indefinitely. But VA officials acknowledge that the appeals system must be transformed. Though VA is converting the claims process into an electronic, paperless system, the great majority of appeals remain paper-bound. As appeals are digitized, more of VA’s 14,355 claims processors will focus on appeals and the process will speed up, McCoy said. “We’re not satisfied with how long it’s taking on the rating side or the appeals side,” she said.

To prepare for the influx of appeals, the Board of Veterans Appeals has hired 100 new lawyers in recent months and has begun a push to handle more cases by video teleconference, a step that can cut 100 days off the process, said Laura Eskenazi, vice chairman of the board. VA assigns veterans who file claims a disability rating, a percentage measure that governs compensation for disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service.

About 10 percent of claimants challenge the rating. Once a veteran files a notice of disagreement — the first step in an appeal — it takes 270 days on average for the VA regional office to respond with a formal statement assessing the case and sometimes reversing some or all of the initial decision, according to VA figures for 2012. If the VA stands by its initial decision the next step is to file a substantive appeal. VA’s regional offices take an average 692 days for the next step, certification of the appeal, a process that can involve gathering further evidence and that sometimes includes input from service organizations assisting the veterans, McCoy said. Next, the vet is given a hearing before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. The board hears cases sent by all 56 regional offices.

“All of a sudden you merge down to one lane,” said Rich Dumancas, deputy director of claims for the American Legion. “It’s hard for the board to keep up with all the cases.”

The duration in part reflects the fact that the process is meant to favor the veteran, who is allowed at any time to submit new evidence and thus extend a case indefinitely. But VA officials acknowledge that the appeals system must be transformed. Though VA is converting the claims process into an electronic, paperless system, the great majority of appeals remain paper-bound. As appeals are digitized, more of VA’s 14,355 claims processors will focus on appeals and the process will speed up, McCoy said.

“We’re not satisfied with how long it’s taking on the rating side or the appeals side,” she said. The board was able on average to make a decision in 251 days in 2012. But nearly half the time, cases are sent back for further consideration to the regional office, where it can take well over a year — on average, 445 days — to process.

Further information

For further Information on VA benefits, please call or stop by the Archuleta County Veterans Service Office, located at the Senior Center in the Ross Aragon Community Center on Hot Springs Blvd.

I will be out of the office on the following days for regular scheduled meetings:

• Vets4Vets: Tuesday mornings, 0900-1200.

• Arboles Community Center, first and third Thursdays. Back around 1400.

• Pagosa Outreach Connection, 0830 to 1000 every Thursday.

The office number is 264-4013, fax number is 264-4014, cell number is 946-3590, and e-mail is raytaylor@archuletacounty.org. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Monday through Friday. Bring your DD Form 214 (Discharge) for completing applications to VA programs or benefits for which the veteran may be entitled to, and a copy for filing in the Archuleta County VSO office. If the office is closed, I am out assisting veterans, leave me a message and phone number to contact you.

The following veterans groups meet in Pagosa Springs:

American Legion Post 108: second Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m., 287 Hermosa St.

American Legion Post 108 Ladies Auxiliary: second Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m., 287 Hermosa St.

Veterans for Veterans: Every Tuesday at 10 a.m., Quality Resort.

Women’s Group of Spouses of Veterans: Every other Monday, 6 p.m., St. Patrick’s Episcopal Parish Hall, 225 S. Pagosa Blvd. Contact Charlotte, 731-1025.

Point Man Ministries’ Breakfast for Veterans 8:30 a.m. each Tuesday at Buffalo Inn, 164 N Pagosa Blvd. Contact Vincent, (435) 618-0049 or Vfortunato777@gmail.com.

Important numbers:

(970) 799-VETS, www.Vets4VetsPSCO.org.

Durango VA Outpatient Clinic, 247-2214.

Farmington VA Center. (505) 327-9684.

The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support to veterans in crisis, as well as to their family and friends 24/7/365. Call (800) 273-8255, chat online or text 838255.

This story was posted on September 19, 2013.