SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) — A retired combat Marine who now represents veterans fighting for VA benefits called the results revealed in a federal investigation into the agency’s claims process “atrocious.”
As Operation Iraqi Freedom exploded 7,000 miles from Florida, Sarasota’s Bill Sterbinsky enlisted with the Marines after the 9/11 attacks, and he fought in Iraq from 2006 to 2007.
Sterbinsky said he was willing to risk his life for his country even after he was nearly killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq while training for a mission.
“The next thing I knew we were upside down,” Sterbinsky said. “I think I remember laughing and I got knocked out completely. I woke up in a Blackhawk on the way to al Asad.” Ayn al Asad is an Iraqi Armed Forces base located in western Iraq.
Sterbinsky said it was not his only brush with death during his tour.
“On more than one occasion,” he said. “Yes.”
A Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report states 68% of medical opinion requests “did not follow required procedures” during a recent one-year period.
Investigators also found 38% of the cases did not include “any relevant evidence within the request” and 19% failed to include “all required medical opinions necessary to decide a claim.”
The percentages are based on a sample review of 100 medical opinion requests from October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021. The data was then extrapolated over a total of 41,100 requests. Read the full VA OIG report here.
The September report states the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) needs to improve internal controls, training, and monitoring to raise the quality of medical opinion requests.
“Strengthening these areas can help VBA advance its objectives to enhance the overall quality and consistency of disability claims processing, reduce delays in veterans receiving decisions on their claims, and make more efficient use of staff resources,” the report said.
Sterbinsky came home from Iraq with PTSD and other injuries but was able to get a law degree. Now, he specializes in denied VA claims.
His reaction to the OIG report was blunt.
“I think that’s pretty atrocious,” Sterbinsky said.
Sterbinsky said he and his clients have been astonished at times when key information was left out of the initial opinions that ended with denied claims.
“I know they wrote that, and I didn’t understand how they wrote that because [the client and I] are looking at the service record that shows, there it is,” he said. “There’s how you got hurt.”
VA Public Affairs Officer Gary Kunich said the agency “is committed to ensuring our processes are fully serving the needs of our Veterans.”
“VBA created enhancements to the electronic systems supporting new requests, which we expect to fully deploy by March 31, 2023,” Kunich said in a statement. “VBA also improved existing mandatory training and developed new training for all employees responsible for requesting or reviewing medical examinations and opinions.”
Kunich said VBA has also strengthened its “monitoring controls” in the areas that need to be improved.
8 On Your Side has exposed several cases over the years involving opinions that were later changed.
Retired WFLA Chief Investigator Steve Andrews conducted a deathbed interview with Navy veteran Lonnie Kilpatrick, whose name was later used in a proposed federal law.
“I went from having osteoarthritis to having metastasized bone cancer all over my body,” Kilpatrick said in tears. “How the hell do they do that?”
The Lonnie Kilpatrcik Central Pacific Relief Act was added to the PACT Act that passed last year.
Recently, retired Marine Stephen Nemeth’s five-year fight for 100 percent disability status finally ended when his claim was approved in November after 8 On Your Side got involved.
Congress should step in, according to Sterbinsky, who said the examination process needs to improve to help veterans now and in the future.
“The American war machine isn’t stopping anytime soon,” Sterbinsky said. “There’s going to be veterans from now until America hangs its hat and is no longer a nation.”
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said last year the agency is cutting into its backlog and will bring it below 100,000 by next year.