9 Investigates: Veterans fighting for disability benefits

by: Stephanie Coueignoux Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Department of Veteran Affairs has called for a nationwide review of its hospital after allegations that veterans aren't getting quality care.
 
Congress issued a subpoena to Secretary Eric Shinseki after reports of 40 veterans dying at the Phoenix VA while waiting for care.
 
The move comes just 24 hours after lawmakers on Capitol Hill called for Shinseki to step down.
               
That hospital is accused of keeping a secret waiting list to conceal treatment delays.
 
Veterans in the area are experiencing delays.
 
A Channel 9 investigation uncovered hundreds still fighting to get disability benefits years after they applied.
 
“My husband has been dead since 2011 and it's now 2014 and we still don't have an answer,” widow Libby Petrie said.
 
Petrie said after serving in Vietnam, her husband returned a changed man.
 
"He suffered from depression and nightmares. He was always having nightmares from that time,” she said.
 
After Gino's PTSD worsened, his family filed an appeal for greater disability benefits.

The VA in Winston-Salem has denied that appeal twice. The last denial was in 2010.
 
“It's like dead end, dead end, dead end. There's really nobody to help you,” Petrie said.

Channel 9 found the agency has a backlog of 344,000 claims.
 
VA officials said the number jumped in 2011, when a court ordered them to re-open thousands of medical claims involving a chemical used during the Vietnam era. It says the decision also generated thousands of new claims.
 
Johnny McClain said he and other veterans can't wait much longer.
 
“It’s like they're waiting for veterans to die so they won't have to get any benefits,” McClain said.
 
In the last five years, the VA office in Winston-Salem has denied him benefits twice. He said he never received an explanation.
 
“I felt like I had all the proof ,with my medical records. They kept denying,” McClain said.
 
McClain admits he thought about giving up.
 
“I did, at my lowest point, I did think about suicide. It's something deep down being in the Marine Corps that brought me back,” he said.
 
Channel 9 wanted to know about its backlog of appeals, and the progress made there.

As of March 31, the Winston-Salem VA had 8,246 Veterans appeals pending.

Channel 9 called and emailed national VA officials and has not heard back.
 
 “I'm going to continue to fight. That's one of the things about being a Marine,  you never give up. You keep going,” McClain said.
 
McClain said he still loves his country but refuses to accept how it's treating him.
 
Petrie said she wants change for her husband and the veterans who are still alive.
 
"I preserve but there are a lot of people who can't,” she said.
 
The VA uses a paper system to track claims but is now installing an electronic system, which should help with the backlog.

According to VA in Winston Salem, the VA expects to finish upgrading its electronic system and eliminate its claims backlog next year.