Georgia veterans lobby for changes to disability system

Nicole Corroto is in a puzzling situation.

The Marine Corps issued her a medical discharge. The Department of Veterans Affairs says she is 90% disabled. But, even before the Social Security Administration received her VA medical records, the agency denied her disability claim.

“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Corroto, a 25-year-old who developed neurological problems while serving in a noncombat role.

Corroto has appealed the Social Security Administration’s decision. But she said she’s watching her savings dwindle as she waits for that to play out. She’s turned to an informal support group in Cherokee County, where she lives, to help guide her through the complex process.

Corroto’s situation is all too common, said Jim Lindenmayer, a West Point graduate and retired Cherokee businessman, who advocates for veterans. Military personnel can qualify for disability payments from the Veterans Administration if they have medical conditions caused or exacerbated by their service. Those with a high level of disability also can qualify for Social Security disability payments. Most veterans get their VA disability first, then use their VA medical records to bolster their Social Security disability case.

That’s where the problem comes in, he said. Though it seems that it ought to be easy to get two agencies under the same federal umbrella to communicate and cooperate better, it hasn’t worked that way, he said. The two agencies have different purposes, different rules and different regulations

“You wouldn’t believe the problems this is causing,” Lindenmayer said.

Even nudging from Congress hasn’t cleared all the roadblocks. That’s left some veterans trying to help each other by passing along tips that could prove helpful in navigating the systems. And Lindenmayer and others are lobbying lawmakers in Washington to make changes to the process to prevent disasters, like veterans losing their homes while waiting for disability approval.

The VA and SSA did not return calls but said in emails to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they are working to solve the problems.

The VA, Department of Defense and SSA ”continue to collaborate on ways to streamline the disability process for eligible Veterans. While VA and SSA have different requirements for disability rating, both agencies work diligently and swiftly to share documentation needed for benefits rating,” a VA spokesman said in an emailed response.

Seven years ago, a study by the Social Security Administration pointed out that the VA and the SSA “may not integrate well.” The agencies added regulations to help fast-track veterans who have a 100% disability rating from the VA. But it can take up to seven years to get approval for disability through the VA, according to VA records. It can take another two or more years to get approved by the SSA.

Some veterans approved for disability through the VA don’t realize they also can qualify for Social Security disability benefits, Lindenmayer said. That’s one reason he and others formed the Cherokee County group.

Retired Army Lt. Col. John Phillips, who works with the group, said members would like to see a single line added to VA disability approval letters informing veterans that they may also qualify for SSA payments. He and other members have also been lobbying Congress, the VA and SSA for it for 18 months, to no avail.

“You’d think it would be very easy to do something like that,” said Phillips, a former Coke executive.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

He thinks veterans given a VA rating of 100% disabled and unemployable should be automatically approved for SSA disability. That is something Congress considered before, but did not approve.

Now, the two systems just don’t work together smoothly, some veterans say.

Lindenmayer said one veteran received a letter from the SSA saying it would take 10 months to get her records from the VA. The SSA told another veteran that it couldn’t get his complete VA medical records and his Social Security claim was denied, Lindenmayer said.

Georgia’s Rep. Barry Loudermilk has criticized the agencies for the slow sharing of documents and the backlogs of cases. The backlog at SSA was trending down until the pandemic hit, according to agency records.

“If you add the differing disability requirements the Department of Veterans Affairs has versus the Social Security Administration, with the delays caused by the pandemic and government closures, you can see why many disabled veterans are having trouble receiving their disability insurance — or even getting answers to their basic questions,” Loudermilk wrote to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Josh Lear, 49, a former Marine who served in Somalia then suffered a debilitating head injury in a truck wreck, went through the process of getting his VA disability, then applied for SSA disability in 2016. He was denied, appealed and it took two years to win his case before an administrative law judge.

He would have lost his house had a friend not stepped in to keep payments current. He said he volunteers with the Cherokee County group because of what he went through.

“We don’t want people on Social Security who don’t need to be,” he said. “But those who do need it, we want that resource to be there.”