For these veterans, dealing with VA has been a relentless fight
BENTON, Ark. — Robert DiCicco left a Fields Corner three-decker in 1952 to join the Marines he had idolized while growing up during World War II. A year later, he found himself crouched in a crude Korean trench, fighting for his life against a swarm of Chinese troops who outnumbered his unit 20 to 1.
DiCicco survived the horror at Carson Outpost, dug close to the present-day boundary that divides the Korean peninsula. He returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and married a Marine, brought her home to Dorchester, and later raised three children south of Boston while working for a fence company.
But when he and his wife entered a nursing home last year in this Little Rock suburb, where they had moved to be near her family, DiCicco found himself battling the same government he had risked his life for, a bureaucratic nightmare that plunged his family into financial peril.
“This has been the most terrible thing I’ve ever been through,” said his widow, Mary Lou DiCicco.
Her husband died March 2 at age 85, consumed by anxiety over a nursing-home bill that had risen to more than $40,000 since November — a bill that the US Department of Veterans Affairs should have helped pay, according to lawyers who specialize in veterans benefit claims and a belatedly regretful VA.
In his last months, DiCicco routinely pushed his wheelchair to the front desk of the Four Seasons nursing home to inquire about his debt. Each time, as the total grew with no sign of government reimbursement, DiCicco’s burden grew heavier.
“He died waiting for it,” said Mary Lou, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “They do everything to get a man over there to get him shot at. He paid a debt to his country, and I feel that they owed him something.”
For veterans and those who work closely with them, the DiCiccos’ plight is all too familiar, a small window into a veterans agency that critics say has long struggled to provide timely disability and pension benefits to the men and women who earned them.
The long waits have prompted a cynical refrain among many veterans frustrated with the bureaucratic lethargy of the VA: “Delay, deny, wait till they die.”
“The VA allows veterans to languish,” said Patty Servaes, who founded Elder Resource Benefits Consulting, based in Sudbury, Mass., and is accredited by the VA to represent veterans in their dealings with the sprawling agency. “A lot of vets feel that way because we’ve seen it.”
As wartime veterans, the DiCiccos are entitled to an “aid-and-attendance” pension, a benefit applied to the cost of caregivers at home or in assisted-living facilities. But like many veterans, the DiCiccos found themselves desperate and adrift while their nursing-home debt climbed and the VA failed to update them on the progress of their claim, family members and advocates said.
In January, pressed for cash, the DiCiccos sold their small Arkansas home at a loss to reduce the debt. Interviewed in Arkansas this month, the DiCicco family said they had never heard directly from the VA about the couple’s application, which is supposed to be expedited for veterans 85 and older.
VA officials acknowledged to the Globe that the agency has fallen short in the DiCicco case, and that the department is reviewing its procedures as a result. “Clearly, we could have done better for Mr. and Mrs. DiCicco,” the VA said in a statement.
Steve DiCicco, the couple’s retired son, said he helped his parents apply for aid and attendance assistance last summer, when he and his siblings realized they would not be able to provide daily care for their parents much longer. Over the years, Robert had undergone a triple bypass, had his kidney and half a lung removed, and survived bladder cancer.
A nursing home appeared to be the only practical but expensive option, one that the family trusted the government would help pay for. Steve DiCicco said he is unsure exactly how much of the couple’s $5,700 monthly bill should have been covered, but that VA reimbursement would be significant.
VA officials did not have that figure available on Saturday.
Steve DiCicco said he has called the VA dozens of times to check on the claim, only to be trapped in a familiar, maddening cycle — long waits on hold, transfers to distant offices, and employees who could not locate the claim, he said.
“What makes me the maddest of all is that he didn’t die in peace,” said Steve, who was raised in Norwell, Mass., and now lives near Little Rock. “It’s amazing how little anyone knows or is willing to help you.”
The nursing home’s managers, unwilling to cut off care, let the DiCiccos stay and defer nearly all payment until the VA had processed their claim, said Kim Moseley, regional director of the Shepard Group, which owns the Four Seasons.
When that would happen was a constant question. The wait was frustrating and infuriating. But despite all, even in the nursing home, the couple’s attachment to the Marines endured.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” reads one plaque on the wall. On a dresser, photographs of Robert and Mary Lou in uniform stand front and center.
“They were such a sweet, loving couple that we just had to help them,” Moseley said. “They didn’t even have hardly any spending money.”
Moseley said she placed several calls to the VA while Robert DiCicco listened from his wheelchair. Each call ended the same way — no approval, no update on where things stood, no firm information at all.
“I told them that these veterans could be homeless if it wasn’t for our home taking them in, and that they needed to be approved very soon,” Moseley said. “It wasn’t something that was very important to the VA. The disappointment that would come across his face was heartbreaking.”
In her 35-year career, Moseley said, she has never handled a more difficult case involving the VA.
VA officials said the DiCicco case is complicated because, under law, pension claims for two married veterans must be processed simultaneously, and that Mary Lou DiCicco’s claim required additional, time-consuming verification of her military service.
The VA said that “regrettably, our efforts to establish entitlement resulted in delays.”
The agency needed only 59 days on average to resolve pension claims in February, including aid and attendance requests, the VA said. The overall goal is to resolve all claims, including disability and pension applications, within 125 days — a standard that was met 91 percent of the time in fiscal 2017, said James Blue, spokesman for the VA’s North Atlantic District.
But many veterans advocates and lawyers who work on VA claims said the process often can take 12 to 18 months. Lesa Jacob-Pollich, the veterans service officer for Saline County, where the DiCiccos live, said she watched helplessly while the family waited month after month for an answer.
Their claim “should go to the top of the pile,” Jacob-Pollich said. “I feel horrible, but I don’t know what I can do.”
Jacob-Pollich said a VA representative told her in October that the DiCicco claim would be approved. Nearly five months later, Robert DiCicco died while waiting for confirmation from the VA. In all that time, no one from the department reached out to him, the family said.
Steve DiCicco said he was hamstrung from the start because the VA will speak only to the veteran about his or her case. As a result, he needed a signed consent form from his father and mother simply to ask the VA for updates.
But his direct involvement did not lead to answers. Steve DiCicco said he eventually discovered — only after phoning — that his father’s application had been stalled because the beneficiary section was filled out incorrectly.
Another time, he was informed that the birthdate on his father’s discharge papers did not match the date on the benefit application. On still another occasion, Steve DiCicco said, he was told that his mother’s approval had been delayed while the VA verified her marriage and waited for her medical records.
“Where do they have to get them from?” DiCicco asked of her medical data. “They’ve been in the system for years.”
As they waited for answers, the DiCicco family watched their savings dwindle. Steve DiCicco, who lives in a mobile home, said he took out a $3,000 loan simply to get his parents into the nursing home.
Later, nearly two-thirds of the money the family received from the sale of the house went to the nursing home bill, he said.
“My mom was crying,” DiCicco recalled. “She said, ‘That money from the house was for you kids.’ ”
Anthony Hardie, national chairman and director of Veterans for Common Sense, said older veterans need quicker decisions on pension claims.
“The VA is really good at one thing: making everything take long,” said Hardie, a disabled Gulf War veteran. “Many veterans filing these claims are in immediate need of nursing home and other specialized care and cannot wait a year or longer for approval.”
The VA did not release statistics showing how many veterans die while waiting for claims to be processed, but some veterans attorneys suspect that the agency intentionally slows the process.
“I do believe that, and many veterans believe that,” said Felicia Pasculli, an elder-law attorney from Bay Shore, N.Y., who added that she has been butting heads with the VA for years. “There’s always this conflict of interest, whether they want to admit it or not.”
Critics such as Pasculli said that aid and attendance is unnecessarily difficult to obtain. Promoting the benefit among veterans should be a priority, they said, and obstacles in the application process should be eliminated.
For example, only attorneys accredited by the VA are allowed to file claims for veterans. But they cannot be paid for the work, only for appeals. Such rules are designed to discourage predatory attorneys, but the byproduct is that many veterans — confused by a complicated process — do not receive the help they need.
In its statement to the Globe, the VA expressed condolences to the DiCicco family “as well as its deep appreciation to Mr. and Mrs. DiCicco for their service to our country. VA regrets that pension benefits with aid and attendance could not be granted prior to Mr. DiCicco’s passing.”
Despite all the obstacles his father encountered, Steve DiCicco said, the old Marine was reluctant to criticize the VA. But the waiting took its toll, filling his end days with the fear that he would leave his children a debt he had worked a lifetime to avoid.
“He was worried to death,” said Steve’s wife, Angelia.
While Mary Lou grieved for the man she married 63 years ago, his son still did not know whether the claim would be paid. But one day after a Globe reporter arrived unannounced at the VA facility in North Little Rock, Steve DiCicco received a phone call.
Six days after his death, Marine Corporal Robert DiCicco’s claim had been approved. The debt has been paid, and his wife will be cared for. But he will never know.