Congressman David Cicilline holds a press conference at his District office in Pawtucket Monday. Pictured with him is Tony Gallo, a North Providence man who spoke of his 17-month ordeal trying to get benefits for his widowed mother. Photo/Donna Kenny Kirwan
PAWTUCKET â€” For Tony Gallo, trying to help his elderly mother receive veteran's benefits she was entitled to was a complicated, frustrating and nearly 17-month process. He turned to Congressman David Cicilline for help, and now the legislator has submitted a package of bills aimed at reducing the backlog for Gallo and countless others.
Gallo, a North Providence resident, spoke to reporters Monday at Cicilline's District Office in Pawtucket. He outlined the difficulty he had in navigating the Veterans Administration's benefits system, which he described as being extremely slow and inefficient. While Gallo is finally slated to receive retroactive payments shortly, his ordeal drew attention to widespread problems that need to be addressed, Cicilline said.
Gallo said that in July 2011, his mother Gladys found herself in need of assisted living. His father, Gladys' husband, had been a World War II veteran who died in 2001, and Gladys was entitled to financial assistance to help defray the costs of an assisted living facility through the Aid and Attendance Program.
Gallo said he turned in the required paperwork to the Veterans Administration's home office in Philadelphia and was notified he would hear from someone in 3 to 6 months. After not getting any word, he repeated the phone calls and e-mails to the VA but his case went unresolved for many more months. By August of 2012, he decided to contacted Cicilline's office, where Seneca Pender, a veterans benefits caseworker, joined the process.
Eventually, Gallo was finally notified that he would be receiving a payment retroactively. The only problem is that he has to be appointed his mother's fiduciary. He is in the process of doing this now. Yet, he notes that as the months have dragged on, he has had to come up with the money to pay for his mother's care.
â€śAt $1,100 a month, it is well over $18,000 owed,â€ť noted Gallo, of the 17-month process. â€śThat's a big chunk of money that would really help me.â€ť He said that he has had to withdraw most of his mother's savings and annuities to pay her bills in the assisted living facility.
Noting that Gallo's process began in 2011, Cicilline said, â€śThat's an unacceptable period of time. Our veterans deserve better.â€ť He said the current system is flawed and thinks it is a â€śnational disgraceâ€ť that veterans and their loved ones have have so much difficulty getting access to the system.
Cicilline noted that, as of March 2013, the total of Veterans Administration pending claims stands at more than 865,000, with over 575,000 claims pending for more than 125 days. The bulk of this nationwide backlog comes from veterans who served during Vietnam or the first Gulf Way, but roughly 20 percent involve veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
â€śâ€ťThe magnitude of this backlog and the impact it has had on families like Tony's demands swift Congressional action,â€ť said Cicilline. â€śI'm proud to be co-sponsoring legislation that will fix the existing backlog of claims in the VA system and provide an effective long-term solution once and for all.â€ť
Taken one by one, the 10 bills would make significant improvements to the current system, but taken together they would fix the â€śsystemic flawsâ€ť and ensure that the federal government provides affective services for veterans, Cicilline said.
Among the bills are H.R. 1729 The VA Claims, Operations and Records Efficiency Act, which would help to reduce the amount of time spent waiting for DoD to provide information in a timely manner by requiring it to provide complete, electronic records to the VA within 21 days.
Also, H.R. 2088 The Claims Adjudication Centers of Excellence would establish a pilot program to help adjudicate the most difficult medical conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, in order to encourage specialization in the VA and reduce the wait time for decisions.
Additionally, H.R. 2086 would require the VA to pay for individual medical conditions as they are adjudicated in an electronic system.
There are seven other bills designed to help remedy a range of existing problems and enable policymakers to get better, more definitive information regarding the backlog, require the VA to better utilize private medical evidence when available, and allow the VA to continue contracting for medical disability examinations for another five years, according to Cicilline's office.