Promise comes after The Bay Citizen reveals Bay Area veterans wait an average of 313 days.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that it would overhaul operations at 12 of its offices in the next few months in order to reduce the time veterans must wait for decisions on their disability claims.
The move comes a day after The Bay Citizen revealed that the backlog of disability claims had exploded to 870,000 under the Obama administration, despite the appropriation of more than $300 million for a new computer system and the hiring of thousands of new claims professionals nationwide.
The problem is particularly acute in the Bay Area, where, according to figures provided by the VA, returning soldiers wait an average of 313 days for a decision. Eighty percent must wait at least 125 days. Of the nearly 60 VA offices around the country, the Oakland office, which handles claims filed by veterans in California north of Los Angeles, had been the slowest to issue rulings.
But new figures released by the VA on Monday show Seattle surpassing Oakland as the slowest office, with 81.1 percent of claims in Washington state pending for more than 125 days, compared to 80.8 percent for Oakland.
Yet neither Oakland nor Seattle is among the first offices the VA intends to overhaul as part of its “transformation plan,” which focuses on the deployment of a new computer system, streamlined processing procedures and new quality-control measures.
“Given the situation in Oakland, I would hope it would be one of the first offices they would like to overhaul,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo). Speier toured the VA’s Oakland Regional Office last month as part of a meeting with the agency’s regional director on behalf of a group of constituents. The group included a woman who has been seeking survivor benefits since her husband, a Vietnam veteran, died in 2006.
Mouse over the circles in the map below to see the backlog of disability claims at each of the VA’s regional offices and the percent of claims that have been pending for at least 25 days:
At the Oakland office, Speier said, veterans’ claims are piled from floor to ceiling in manila envelopes, with all new disability claims mailed to VA offices in Lincoln, Neb., and Muskogee, Okla.
In an email, Jessica Arifianto, a VA spokeswoman, said the Oakland office would take part in the “transformation initiatives” eventually, because “all offices will be brought online by the end of 2013, including Oakland.”
In a statement, Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, said the deployment of the computer system to 12 cities marked “an important milestone in our transformation to achieve the goal we established in 2009 of processing all disability claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level in 2015.”
Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in an interview that he hoped increased media attention, coupled with pressure from constituents during an election year, would force Shinseki, and President Barack Obama, to act more decisively.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has scheduled a hearing on the disability claims backlog for Wednesday.
The VA is “not held accountable in public as often as they should be,” Rieckhoff said. “Maybe we’ll get some help from Mitt Romney or Congressman Miller.”
Source: The Bay Citizen, April 16, 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