Troubleshooter helps Wake Forest veteran get six-figure disability claim

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (WTVD) -- Thousands of veterans are waiting for answers when it comes to their disability benefits claims.

Wake Forest veteran Pete Lambert knows all too well about the long wait.

"It's ridiculous," Lambert said. "There are 153,000 people in this boat with me. I'm at the 31,000 mark, so their claims have to be older than mine, and some of these people are in pretty bad shape. Some of them need it to live on, so where is the VA?"

Lambert was referring to the VA.gov tracker, which is an online system a veteran sees when they log into their account on the website for the Veteran Affairs Benefits and Services.

"I want my rating, and they are saying we are too busy we will get to it," Lambert said.

'FOUL WATER' AT MARINE BASE

Lambert's case dates back to when he was a Marine. He served six years and crossed both oceans. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in the 1970s.

Years later, he still remembers the foul water at the Marine base, which he blames on the dry cleaners.

"The dry cleaner would dump all of the dry cleaner fluid, vinyl chloride, in the ground, and it got into the wells," Lambert said. "So when you turned on the water in the room, it smelled like dry-cleaning fluid, and that's all we had, so we had to cook in it, we had to clean in it, shower in it."

Fast forward years later, and Lambert started having kidney problems.

"I started having kidney problems, probably in the late '90s, early 2000s, and it progressed, and there is no cure for kidney disease," Lambert said.

He then got a letter from the government informing him about water quality issues at Camp Lejeune from 1957-1987.

"Telling me I was in the pool for people at Camp Lejeune, and these were the diseases that fell under it, one of them being renal toxicity," he said.

CLAIM APPROVAL TOOK NINE YEARS

In 2009, Lambert first filed a claim with the Department of Veteran Affairs. His initial claim was denied. He filed an appeal, hired an attorney, and his appeal was eventually approved in June of 2018.

His chronic kidney disease was deemed service-connected. However, Lambert said he was still waiting for the VA to hand down his rating. Lambert said he contacted the VA, and so did his attorney, and he even reached out to Sen. Richard Burr's office for help, but his case still remained open.

"I have been in what's called a decision-ready status since the beginning of June," Lambert said. What that means is they have everything they need. All of the medical exams are done, all of the paperwork's in, everything is ready for decision; that was four months ago, and they still won't communicate."

TROUBLESHOOTER CALL TO VA YIELDS QUICK RESULTS

Frustrated, Lambert reached out to me. When I first met with him in his Wake Forest home on October 9, Va.gov Tracker, said it had 153,639 appeals on the docket, and that Lambert had 30,926 ahead of him in the system.

I got in touch with the VA, and Lambert was shocked at how quickly he heard from the VA about his case.

"They resolved it very quickly," he said.

Within days of my involvement, Lambert's case closed.

The VA ruled his chronic renal failure to include hypertension was deemed 100 percent service-connected. Plus less than a week after first meeting with me, the VA direct-deposited his back disability benefits to the time he first filed his claim in 2009, which ended up being a six-figure amount.

"I don't think anything would have happened without your help," Lambert said. "I just thank you for all of your help and appreciate it because we wouldn't be where we are today if you hadn't gotten involved."

When I asked the VA why Lambert's claim took so long to approve and pay, a representative with the VA said in part, "A maze of previous federal laws made VA's claim appeals process complex, inefficient and difficult to navigate for Veterans. That's why VA worked with Congress and Veterans Service Organizations on the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, which overhauls and modernizes our claims appeals process and thereby provides better, faster decisions for Veterans."

She said the VA processes the average disability benefits claim in 98.6 days. When I asked her in Lambert case, why VA.gov tracker had more than 30,000 claims ahead of him, but then once I got involved his case was resolved within days, she added, "The VA.gov tracker is an estimate and calculates the case order simply by the age of the appeal. It does not take into account different workloads at each station, as well as prioritization factors, such as advanced age, financial hardship, and serious illness. Additionally, appeals like Mr. Lambert's, previously before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, may be expedited."
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