An American Legion case worker takes notes on a veterans appeal for disability benefits denied by the VA. The Legion handles more than 600 such appeals per month, and 60 percent of them are either granted or sent to regional VA offices for further review.

'Quality over quantity'

The American Legion is urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to redouble its efforts to reduce the staggering backlog of disability claims filed by veterans. According to the Legion, more than 400,000 new claims are now pending, with an additional 200,000 denials being appealed.

"The VA disability claims backlog is a problem that won't go away anytime soon, but VA can reduce it by emphasizing quality over quantity in the way it processes those claims," said Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion's headquarters in Washington. "One of the most effective ways we can help veterans and their families is to make sure these claims are processed carefully and thoroughly - and that the correct decision is made the first time."

The American Legion is also urging Congress to work closely with VA in its efforts to reduce the claims backlog. The Legion's Legislative Division director, Steve Robertson, is meeting with federal legislators today to recommend that Congress use its oversight authority to measure progress being made by VA, and to consider Legion recommendations on how to improve the situation.

Many veterans submit appeals on VA denials of disability claims, and The American Legion's Appeals and Special Claims Unit in Washington handles more than 600 of them every month.

Barry Searle, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, said the appeal process can get complicated, and most veterans whose claims are denied by VA never make the attempt to file an appeal.

"About 85 to 90 percent of veterans who are denied either accept the decision - which is often a mistake - or don't really know how to go about changing it," Searle said. "That's where organizations like The American Legion are critical. Our service officers help veterans get in touch with Legion appeals representatives and assign power of attorney to them. Then we prepare and file a brief at the Board of Veterans Appeals, explaining why VA made a mistake in denying disability benefits to a particular veteran."

VA can take from six months to more than a year in deciding a claim, according to Steve Smithson, principal disability claims expert for The American Legion. "And if a denied claim is disputed, it can take several years to be resolved."

Smithson said many claims are rejected because veterans haven't documented their cases well enough, and VA doesn't take the time to investigate properly. "So they deny the case. And VA employees get a work credit for each claim they make a decision on, whether it's the right one or not," he said. That kind of work incentive program can compromise quality, because getting the proper information and making a proper decision often takes a lot more time. If you start taking shortcuts, then mistakes are made and claims are erroneously denied."

In recent years, Gaytan said, The American Legion has had a 60-percent success rate for the thousands of Board of Veterans Appeals cases it has handled: VA has either awarded the benefits or sent cases back to its regional offices for further review.

"If any veterans need help in filing their VA claims - or appealing the denial of their benefits - they should contact The American Legion and we'll help them through the process, free of charge," Gaytan said.The American Legion has recently added a benefits calculator for veterans to its Web site.