One in four disability decisions at Oakland office is wrong, official tells congressmen.
“Quality issues,” including staff errors, are a key reason why Bay Area veterans wait 313 days, on average, for the Department of Veterans Affairs to render decisions on their disability claims, a senior VA official told a Congressional committee Wednesday.
The hearing, before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, came three days after The Bay Citizen revealed that the backlog of disability claims had exploded to 870,000 under the Obama administration.
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 from the agency’s Oakland Regional Office. Eighty percent must wait at least 125 days.
Committee members grilled Tom Murphy, the director of the VA’s Compensation Service, about the backlog and Oakland’s poor performance record.
Under questioning from the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Pensacola, Fla., Murphy said that veterans’ disability claims handled by the Oakland office frequently have “quality issues” and must be re-examined “two times or a third time” before a decision can be rendered.
And in response to questions from Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Democrat from Pleasanton, Murphy said that workers at the Oakland Regional Office rendered incorrect decisions on veterans’ disability claims more than a quarter of the time.
“At what point does your office take steps when you see performance drop?” McNerney asked Murphy. “What is a trigger to you to start taking drastic steps to improve a region’s performance?”
“I don’t want to sound like I’m ducking a question here,” Murphy said before changing the subject. “I completely understand that it’s very difficult to look a veteran in the eye and say, ‘I know you’ve been waiting 330 days, but you need to wait more.’ That’s not the message we want to give.”
No veterans with pending disability claims appeared before the committee.
David Smith, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq and is now a student at the University of California, Berkeley, said the long delays represented a broken promise by the government to citizens who sign up to fight in wars.
Smith has been waiting more than a year for a decision on his claim for compensation related to post-traumatic stress disorder. He said since his discharge from the Marine Corps, he has had difficulty maintaining friendships and romantic relationships. Focusing on school work is also difficult, he said, because images of carnage in Iraq regularly intrude on his thoughts.
“We go and fight our asses off, and then when we come back, it’s just delay and denial. I wish someone fought as hard for me as we’ve been fighting for them, but it’s just not there,” Smith said.
At the hearing in Washington, much of the questioning 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, the VA compensation director.
“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.
McNerney’s spokeswoman, Lauren Smith, said in an email that the congressman was not satisfied.
“While this is a step in the right direction, it does nothing to address the thousands of benefits claims currently backlogged,” she wrote.
Source: The Bay Citizen, April 18, 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