Roseburg Navy veteran Bob Ratz, 85, injured his back as a young man, when he was serving with the Sea Bees construction battalion in Guam and in the Philippines in the 1950s. Today, he suffers spinal problems he believes are connected to those injuries.
Even though his doctors agree with him, Ratz’s efforts to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs of the connection haven’t been successful so far, and appealing its denial of his claim has been a difficult and time-consuming process. He’s been at it for two and a half years.
Douglas County Veterans Service Officer Pat Plourd said Ratz isn’t alone. Hundreds of Douglas County veterans are in the middle of lengthy waits on their appeals. On average, the Portland regional VA office takes 420 days to decide on the first level of appeals, and it takes another 534 days on average to get a hearing with the Board of Veterans Appeals.
The problem has garnered national attention. For the second year in a row, a group of U.S. senators has introduced a bill that would overhaul the appeals process. But for now, Ratz and others like him are stuck waiting.
Bob Ratz’s wife Pamela Ratz said she hopes Douglas County residents will contact their U.S. senators and representative to voice support for the Department of Veterans Affairs Appeals Modernization Act. This piece of legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate last year, and reintroduced into the Senate in March by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Jon Tester, D-Montana. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House last year.
According to a press release issued by Blumenthal’s office, the current appeals process was designed in 1933 and hasn’t been updated since. The result is that more than 450,000 veteran appeals are currently pending.
The bill, S. 3328, has been referred to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. It would create a three-track system to simplify and speed up appeals.
The buildings Ratz and other Sea Bees worked on had been designed to withstand the impact of atom bombs. The materials used to construct them were solid, heavy and hard on the back.
“The interior walls were cement blocks and the exterior walls were too,” Ratz said. “The first deck was cement, the second deck was cement and the roofs were cement. They tested several houses when they were dropping that A bomb. They made steel houses, wooden houses, to see which ones would withstand the bomb the best, and I guess these were the best,” he said.
Like many young men in the military, Ratz’s approach to back pain was to ignore it, for the most part. A couple of times, though, he did see a medic about injuries to his back.
“They basically told him take some aspirin, go to bed, and go back to work in the morning,” Pamela Ratz said.
It didn’t occur to Bob Ratz that the pain would linger into his senior years. Today, he suffers from bulging and herniated discs and degenerative arthritis in his spine, and he has filed a benefit claim asking the VA to pay for his care.
The regional VA office rejected his claim, and Ratz appealed. A spine specialist wrote to the VA that Bob’s problems are related to the injuries he received during his service, but the VA again rejected the claim. After a two-year wait, it issued a decision denying his appeal. The Ratzes have now moved on to the next level of appeal, and have been waiting a year so far.
Plourd works for the county, not the VA, and represents veterans seeking VA benefits. He said Ratz’s experience is typical of many veterans. During their service, they may have injured a joint, a back, an arm, a shoulder, but they see it as an acute problem. They don’t anticipate the chronic pain. That will come later, and be much harder to prove.
Unfortunately, Plourd said, the VA is reluctant to tie those two things together. If it doesn’t see the pain as connected to the injury received during the veteran’s service, then it won’t pay for the treatment the veteran needs now.
“It works to the disadvantage of the veteran, because the benefit of the doubt, which should always go to the veteran, doesn’t always go to the veteran,” Plourd said.
The Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center doesn’t determine whether veterans receive benefits. That’s the job of the Veterans Benefit Administration. But Plourd said doctors at the VA hospitals can help bolster a veterans’ claim by writing letters to the benefits office.
In the past, though, doctors at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center have been reluctant to provide such letters, arguing they have a conflict of interest since they work at the VA. Plourd doesn’t buy that logic. It’s not an issue at other VAs, as far as he can tell from talking to his counterparts in other areas.
Plourd said issues with the Roseburg VA have been improving since Director Doug Paxton took charge. Some doctors there have recently written really good letters in support of their veteran patients’ appeals, drawing the links between their service injuries and their current conditions. Sometimes, a doctor will turn down a patient’s request for such a letter, but agree to do it when Plourd asks. Plourd said he wishes he didn’t have to step in, that a patient’s request would be enough.
Roseburg VA Chief of Staff Ratnabali Ranjan said in a written statement that the Roseburg VA has to follow the procedure laid out by the Veterans Benefit Administration, which involves having specially trained clinicians fill out medical forms. She said the VBA discourages additional information being provided.