Howard County veteran's benefits repeatedly delayed
Bob Thornton, 85, fondly recalls his career as an Army supply sergeant more than half a century ago. Thornton describes the highlight of his service, saying, "I had authority. I liked that."
Thornton now depends on his daughter, Lisa Gresham, for help. Gresham assumed power of attorney for her father several years ago when he was diagnosed with dementia and bladder cancer. She also handles his dealings with the Veterans Administration, a responsibility that she finds frustrating, to say the least.
"They promised his benefits. They haven't come through," Gresham said.
Gresham applied for benefits in 2011 to cover her father's rent at his assisted-living home. She remembers receiving the approval letter for $1,700 a month in 2012.
"I literally started crying, because it was such a relief that this was going to take care of him, that he would be taken care of. I had no idea 2 1/2 years later that I'd be crying for different reasons," Gresham said.
Gresham is upset because although the VA now pays her father's rent stipend, she believes he is entitled to a year's worth of benefits that date back to his initial application in 2011 and add up to more than $20,000. Gresham is concerned that the unpaid bill puts her father at risk of eviction.
"Really, it's shameful," Gresham said.
Gresham's tired of the runaround. She said she spends countless hours faxing and calling the VA.
While 11 News watched, Gresham dialed the VA hotline, and 48 minutes into the call, Gresham got cut off. She said she's tired of wasting time.
"Right now, his health is in crisis. He's scheduled for some surgery to get rid of some additional cancer tumors ... and that needs to be my focus," Gresham said.
Asked whether she feels like the VA is trying to wear her down, Gresham said, "I absolutely feel like they're trying to wear me down. I feel like perhaps they hope I'll give up. It has even crossed my mind that maybe they're hoping he'll just die."
The family enlisted the help of attorney Frank Natale with Maryland Legal Aid. He has been trained by the VA to help veterans navigate the system. But more than two years later, he hasn't heard anything. He said that's worse than a denial.
"If you don't have a denial in your hand, you can't appeal. We need an answer," Natale said.
Thornton isn't alone. The family of another local veteran stuck in a similar situation contacted 11 News.
WBAL-TV 11 News asked the VA how many elderly veterans are awaiting decisions on benefit payments, but officials there declined to answer that question and refused a request for an interview.
Instead, Marisa Prugsawan, a spokeswoman with the Philadelphia VA Regional Office, provided a statement on Thornton's case that explains that the agency is "researching to determine if the claimant had previously submitted information to allow us to award benefits from an earlier effective date We understand how vital it is to provide all benefits Mr. Thornton is eligible for and will provide an update to the family as soon as possible."
"It's shameful. Really, it's shameful," Gresham said.
Gresham and her lawyer said the runaround has gotten so egregious that it may add up to a breach of Thornton's civil rights, rights he once wore a uniform to defend.
The owner of Thornton's assisted-living facility continues to be patient. She told 11 News she has encountered similar delays with the VA in the past but this is the longest. She said she would be reluctant to accept another veteran awaiting back payment.
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