Billboards are popping-up around the country proclaiming “VA is Lying, Veterans are Dying.” According to a spate of news reports from the past few days, these billboards have gone up in Phoenix, Indianapolis , and Tampa , with one source  reporting that the billboards now appear in at least six states.

The man behind the billboards is Ron Nesler, a Vietnam veteran from southern Indiana who has launched a social media campaign to draw attention to the problems veterans encounter with both VA healthcare and the VA claims process. “The point of these billboards is to embarrass the VA and embarrass the Congress and force them to do something right for the veterans,” Nesler said to KTAR News, a Phoenix-based radio station.

Nesler’s Facebook group, simply called “VA is Lying,” represents one of many grassroots movements by veterans who have grown frustrated by their encounters with the VA. The group’s Facebook page, which has nearly 20,000 followers, represents a place where veterans and their families can voice their dissatisfaction with the VA.

The billboards, which are funded by Nesler and donations, have been strategically placed  near various VA facilities, with one billboard directly facing the windows of VA executives at the Phoenix VA. The VA in Phoenix in particular has been mired  in  controversy  in recent years, starting with a CNN investigation  revealing that at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointments at their facilities.

The billboards “came about as way to voice our concerns. (It’s) a movement – a peaceful movement to show that us veterans have kind of had enough of the rhetoric with Veterans Affairs,” said  Mike Stifner, a Marine associated with Mr. Nesler. We at brokenVA applaud Mr. Nesler and his group for its creative approach to highlighting the issues veterans face at the VA. To learn more about Mr. Nesler and his group, you can visit their website by clicking here.

In the past several years, much has been made  of the backlog of undecided claims pending before the VA and the amount of time veterans were waiting to get a decision on their claims. At one time, it was estimated that there were hundreds of thousands of claims clogging the bureaucratic cogs at the VA. However, data from the VA reveals that the backlog may be shrinking considerably.

After outcry several years ago over the backlog and associated delays, VA began publically releasing statistics regarding the number of undecided claims. The most current data released by the VA puts the backlog at 72,623 claims, down from a high of 611,073 claims in March 2013.

To understand what this means, one must remember that VA only considers a claim to be part of the backlog if more than four months have passed without a decision. To get a better idea of the undecided claims pending, VA has released data showing that there are currently 368,771 claims awaiting an initial decision, which is less than half of the 883,930 claims pending in July 2012.  It seems that VA might be heading in the right directions, but there is still a long way to go.

Representatives from several prominent veterans’ organizations have stated that the reduction in the backlog may be artificial. For instance, representatives from both VFW and The American Legion have stated  that VA is fudging the numbers by excluding certain types of claims from the backlog. They point out that approximately 221,000 claims requesting to add a spouse or child to a veteran’s compensation are not counted in the backlog, resulting in artificially low statistics. Other critics  have argued that efforts to reduce the backlog has simply led the VA to deny more claims so that they won’t be counted as part of embarrassing statistics, leading to an increase in the appeals and creating a separate backlog at that level.

While I’m generally fairly critical of the VA, I will give credit where credit is due: If the statistics being published by the VA are accurate, we should applaud the efforts taken to reduce the backlog and delay in claims processing. However, there is one aspect of the VA’s numbers that I believe is misleading: the statistics do not consider a claim which has been denied and appealed to constitute a part of the backlog.  Unfortunately, as many veterans know, claims that have been denied an appealed are often the ones where delays are most pronounced. Indeed, once a veteran has filed his appeal to the Board, he will wait an average of 681 days  before the case is forwarded to the Board, and another 357 days before receiving a decision. Thus, I believe that VA should consider appeals in evaluating its backlog. Until we are allowed to see statistics on the backlog of appeals pending at the VA, we are only being told part of a much larger story.

Want to file a claim for service connection? Fill out VA Form 21-526. Does the disability you’re claiming effect your employment? Then you’ll need VA Form 21-8940. Did the VA deny your claim? You better complete VA Form 21-0958 and VA Form 9. When you’re pursuing your claims, it seems like the VA wants you to fill-out a new form every other day. And they’ll happily provide you with any form you need, and even some forms you don’t. But there is one form that VA hides from veterans, and it could be one of the most important forms you will ever complete.

In the year 2014, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals issued 11,934 decisions denying claims, according to the Board’s Annual Report. In that same timeframe, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims received 3,745 appeals from Board decisions, according to its own Annual Report.  This means that approximately 31% of veterans, or less than a third, who received outright denials from the Board, actually filed an appeal to the Court. Does this mean that more than two thirds of veterans who receive denials from the Board believe that the Board’s decision was correct? I doubt that very much.

Like just about everything at the VA, there is a form  for appealing a Board decision to the Veterans Court. And it’s one of the simplest forms that anyone could ever complete. All it asks for is your name, address, phone number, VA file number, and the date of the Board decision you want to appeal. But instead of providing people who receive Board denials with this simple form, the Board sends something that is designed to confuse you.

Attached to every Board denial is a two page single-spaced document which provides information on what you should do if you disagree with the Board’s decision. It tells you that you can file your appeal to the Veterans Court and where to send a “Notice of Appeal,” but does not tell you what a “Notice of Appeal” is. Instead, it tells you that “you can get information about the Notice of Appeal… directly from the Court,” without giving you the Court’s phone number so you can seek out that information. I believe that the VA has designed this document to be deliberately confusing so that veterans miss their opportunity to seek independent review of VA denials in court. But don’t take my word for it, check it out  for yourself.

The sad truth is that appealing a Board denial does not have to be difficult or confusing. All a veteran needs to do is file a simple form.  But when the VA hides that form, it places a barrier in the path of veterans seeking their well-deserved benefits. In the spirit of creating a more functional and fair system for veterans, I believe the Board should enclose a Notice of Appeal form with every denial it issues. Its failure to do so is one of the many reasons that the VA is broken.

IntroducingBrokenVAAs an attorney who has spent nearly 20 years representing veterans and their families in their fight to win veterans benefits, I’m faced with an inescapable reality; the Department of Veterans Affairs is broken, dysfunctional, adversarial, deceptive, unfriendly, bureaucratic, and deliberately designed to make it as difficult as possible for veterans, surviving spouses, and orphans to collect benefits to which they are entitled to legally and morally.

My observation is neither unique, nor am I the first to make this observation. Indeed, scarcely a week passes without a story in the national or local news regarding the dysfunction of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Congressmen, Senators, and the very people employed at the Department of Veterans Affairs routinely concede that VA is dysfunctional. VA is broken.

For years, we have heard our political leaders pledge to solve the issues plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs, only to see those promises go unfulfilled. Yet, I do not doubt that the people who work for VA are, by and large, good people. In my nearly 20 years of fighting for veterans, most of the VA employees I have met are genuinely interested in seeing that justice prevails and that veterans and family members receive the benefits to which they are entitled. And yet I believe in the inescapable reality that VA is dysfunctional. VA is broken.

I’m here to raise my voice and to advocate for change. This is why I decided to publish and publicize brokenVA.com. I’m under no legal or ethical obligation to publish this blog. I receive no payment and expect no reward. There will be no advertising on this site, and I will not sell you, the reader, any product or services. If you, the reader, find my posts or those of others who collaborate with me to be entertaining or informative, then the effort has been worth it. If the posts on this blog lead to positive change, then the effort really has been worth it.

BrokenVA.com is not simply a blog to catalogue the failings of VA, but a voice to advocate for its improvement. We seek to elevate the voices of our nation’s veterans and build momentum for real change. VA is broken, and we want to fix it.