U.S. asks disabled veterans to use claims preparers

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is urging veterans with combat-related disabilities to seek the help of accredited claims preparers, rather than file benefits claims themselves directly to the VA.

The VA says the practice will help cut its nationwide backlog of benefits claims. Veterans advocates, however, say the request by the VA only confirms how onerous the claims process has become. And the advocates worry that paperwork and filing delays will leave veterans seeking benefits for disabilities dependent on claims preparers, whose workloads and levels of competence often vary.

"Most veterans by nature are independent, can-do people, so the idea of having to seek assistance filling out paperwork adds another layer of frustration," said Tireak Tulloch, a Long Island, N.Y., spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national advocacy organization. "It's like the IRS telling you you have to go to H&R Block if you want to get your money back."

The VA depends on accredited independent claims preparers -- typically provided free of charge by local governments or veterans service organizations like the American Legion -- to help veterans fill out claims applications that are pages long and require voluminous documentation.

The VA says using independent preparers to help veterans fill out the paperwork will help cut down on filing errors it says contribute to more than 700,000 claims backlogged nationally and delays of up to a year for benefits checks to arrive.

"(The) VA strongly encourages veterans to work with veterans service organizations to file fully developed claims and participate in this initiative," Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said in a release.

Joe Mylonas, of Farmingville, N.Y., said he lost nearly two years' worth of compensation after a county veterans agency in Wyoming destroyed his application while he was living there.

"The VA makes me regret I ever enlisted," said Mylonas, who calculates he lost nearly $16,000 by the time he refiled a claim after being told the original had been destroyed.

When claims preparers in Wyoming destroyed Mylonas' application rather than file it for him six years ago, the VA refused to give him credit for 20 months of disability benefits -- some $15,980 -- he says he lost because of the delay in having to refile.

"You're behind on your rent, you're borrowing money from relatives, your credit is (in trouble) -- it's a domino effect," said Mylonas, 35, a married father of two.

Mylonas, a former Army staff sergeant, served two tours in Iraq before receiving an honorable discharge in December 2006.

After leaving the service, he took a job as an oil field worker in Wyoming. But nearly eight years of Army life left him with a number of injuries, plus symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the VA's documents.

The documents show doctors discovered a compression fracture in his back. He had an operation to repair acid damage to his esophagus caused by a nervous stomach, and both knees ached from training accidents.

While in Wyoming, he said he took the advice of VA officials and, in November 2007, secured the assistance of the Sweetwater County Veterans Services office. County workers there prepared a claim for VA benefits relating to his service injuries.

But the county office never forwarded his claim to the federal government, according to the documents.

On May 19, 2009, the VA approved disability benefits for Mylonas, but, following federal guidelines for administering veterans claims, declined to make them retroactive to when he first applied through the county office.

"While this event is unfortunate, the VA can not be held responsible for the actions of Veterans Service Officers," the VA's Denver Regional Office wrote in its decision, "as they are not in the employ of the VA."

To Mylonas, the VA's blaming it on the people they recommended he use made the whole affair far worse.

"This is how they win," he said. "They just wear you down."

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(Contact Newsday writer Martin C. Evans at martin.evans@newsday.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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