Updated 10:44am April 20 with reaction from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Sixteen members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki Thursday, urging him to “send immediate help” to his agency’s Oakland Regional Office, which handles all disability claims filed by veterans from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.
The letter came less than a week after The Bay Citizen revealed that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ backlog of disability claims had exploded to 870,000 under the Obama administration.
The problem is particularly acute in the Bay Area, where veterans wait an average of 313 days for a decision on a disability claim. Nearly 35,000 Northern California veterans are currently waiting for the VA to issue a ruling on their disability claim. Eighty percent must wait at least 125 days.
“This is gross inefficiency and an unnecessary hardship on veterans and their families, some of whom may even become homeless while they wait for a claims decision from the Oakland office,” the letter reads.
The VA did not immediately respond to a press inquiry from The Bay Citizen.
In an e-mailed statement sent at 2:11am Friday morning, the department said it “shares the concern that the Oakland Regional Office has not met requirements in all operational areas and must improve performance and service to our Veterans.”
“We are diligently working to transition this office into a high performing station,’ the statement said.
Thursday’s letter was spearheaded by Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from San Mateo, and Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Democrat from Pleasanton who serves on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
On Wednesday, members of the committee grilled Thomas Murphy, the director of the VA’s Compensation Service, about the backlog and the Oakland office’s poor performance record.
Much of the questioning at the hearing surrounded the VA’s announcement Monday that it would overhaul operations at 12 regional offices around the country, a move that includes the deployment of a new computer system and the implementation of quality-control teams.
The list of offices to revamp did not include Oakland, the second slowest in the country, or Seattle, the slowest.
“Is there a reason why Oakland is not included on that list?” McNerney asked Murphy during the hearing.
“I cannot explain it,” Murphy replied.
Instead, Murphy said that “every single person in that office” would receive “an intense, challenge training” in June, in an effort to improve performance.
In their letter to Shinseki, the 16 House members, all Democrats from California, expressed “extreme disappointment” over the VA’s decision not to overhaul the Oakland office.
“Please reconsider your decision not to select the Oakland regional office as one of the 12 to receive transformation initiatives, and send immediate help to the Oakland office so it may improve its processing of claims, erase this shameful backlog, and serve the veterans who so nobly served our country,” the letter reads.
In it’s statement responding to the letter, the Department of Veterans Affairs did not directly adress that request, but said “we are confident that the Oakland Regional Office’s performance will improve during the remainder of fiscal year 2012 in key areas and bring its performance closer in line with expectations in fiscal year 2013 and beyond.”
In addition to McNerney and Speier, the letter was signed by Reps. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, John Garamendi of Walnut Creek, Dennis Cardosa of Merced, Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, Pete Stark of Fremont, Jim Costa of Fresno, Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, George Miller of Martinez, Mike Honda of Santa Clara, Doris Matsui of Sacramento, Barbara Lee of Oakland, Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma, San Farr of Santa Cruz and Mike Thompson of St. Helena.
Source: The Bay Citizen, April 19, 2012
Aaron Glantz covers housing, the economy, and military issues for The Bay Citizen. Before joining TBC, Glantz spent seven years covering the war in Iraq and the treatment veterans receive when they come home. He … View Profile