Third of a five-part series

Jim Landy did not die on the battlefield. But his 26 years of military service likely killed him.

Landy, 64, died of esophageal cancer last Thanksgiving, four years after he filed a claim for service-connected disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The former Navy senior chief petty officer spent years at the McMurdo naval station in Antarctica before its nuclear power plant was closed in 1973 because of a radiation leak.

VA acknowledges the link between esophageal cancer and radiation exposure. But it is still investigating McMurdo cases to determine whether the reactor leak is what caused high cancer rates among veterans who served there.

Landy's claim was still pending when he died.

"I'm at peace that he's not suffering anymore, but I am just so bitter toward the government for the way that they treat vets," said Landy's widow, Pam, who has kept the claim open since his death.

"When you see these poor kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and they've got limbs missing, how long do these poor guys got to fight before they get compensated," she asked.

Death comes with delay for thousands of veterans whose disability claims are trapped in a bureaucracy that takes years for closure. Almost 19,500 veterans died last year waiting for a decision, according to December report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Making America’s Heroes Wait
A Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative series on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ broken promises to U.S. military veterans.
Monday: Vets trapped in endless VA bureaucracy
Yesterday: Critics, IG say VA cooks claims books
Today: Vets face lies, damn lies and VA statistics
Coming tomorrow: Claims backlog not our fault, VA officials say
Coming Friday: Claims backlog grows despite parade of VA ‘solutions’
Read the entire series at this link

An average of 22 veterans a day commit suicide, many with disability claims pending at VA.

Veterans' advocates say skewed priorities are driving much of the delay. Meeting quotas for moving cases quickly translates into positive performance reviews, promotions and bonuses.

It also leads to mistakes that take years to correct. Rating decisions are made at the 57 regional offices scattered throughout the country, a process that takes nine months on average.

Veterans who disagree with the initial decision can challenge it at the Board of Veterans Appeals, then in a special federal appeals court for veterans' claims.

The average time between filing an initial claim and getting a decision from the appeals board is almost four years, according to the agency's own reports.

But in 44 percent of the cases, the board finds errors or incomplete information from the regional offices and sends the case back for further development.

When that happens it takes another 14 months for the case to be resolved, either at the regional office or through a new decision from the appeals board.

When a final decision does come, the board is more likely to side with the veteran than the agency.

It's called the "hamster wheel," by advocacy organizations that help veterans prepare their claims, said Joseph Violante, national legislative director at Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

"Once that wrong decision is rendered, it becomes harder for that individual to correct that mistake," said Violante, a Vietnam veteran who spent five years as a staff attorney with the VA's appeals board. "They will go up and down as these cases churn through the system."

The agency's inspector general has repeatedly caught claims raters fudging the numbers or leaving errors uncorrected because of pressure to keep cases moving.

The reason, investigators were told, is fixing old cases is not a priority "due to pressure to meet productivity standards," according to congressional testimony last June.

In 2009, IG officials reported regional managers in New York instructed raters to intentionally enter the wrong date for when claims were filed so it would appear the office was processing them more quickly. About 56 percent of claims had falsified dates, a practice that had been going on for many years.

A 2010 IG investigation shows at least two regional offices were substituting newer and simpler cases for older and more complex ones to make it appear they were moving them more quickly.

That tactic is widespread in the agency, said Paul Sullivan, a former VA official who has testified in front of multiple congressional committees about the backlog and is now a member of the board of directors of Veterans for Common Sense.

So while the average wait for a rating decision is about nine months, that includes a high volume of easy cases. For those with more complex conditions, the waits are far longer.

The VA has cleared out most of the easy claims, and is left with the more difficult ones, said Sullivan, who also serves as director of veterans outreach at the law firm Bergmann & Moore, which represents veterans with VA claims.

It now takes about 273 days for a regional office to decide a claim, according to the most recent data published by VA. A year ago, it was 227 days.

"These offices went overboard in processing easy claims and then they hit a day of reckoning, a brick wall, when suddenly the only claims left were mostly older, complicated claims," Sullivan said.

Fixing mistakes in appealed cases is a low priority at VA, according to a May 2012 IG report. Office managers are judged by how many initial claims are processed, and are not penalized for allowing appealed cases to linger, the IG found.

As a result, VA officials who should be fixing old cases are allowed to mix in new claims to meet their productivity requirements, according to the report.

Violante said more emphasis needs to be put on deciding claims right the first time.

"If you do a case wrong in 125 days, you have met your goal of having it decided but you've added another three years at the board and two years in court," he said. "What have you gained? You've gained nothing."

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog reporting team. He can be reached at