This article details what should be considered a national shame. It has persisted in the face of public outcry. With the call to “Support Our Troops,” it has not be rectified and remains merely lip service. The political conventions are busy patting themselves on their backs while those who served at their behest struggle to cope with the damage from their service. How long can we applaud our political affiliations when our government is failing and not supporting the troops?
The soldier featured on the right, Adam Fields, 27, of Modesto has been waiting since November 2010 for a ruling on his claim for benefits. Unacceptable.
— Swords to Plowshares
SF Chronicle – While many Northern California veterans wait a year or more for the federal government to make a call on their war-related disability claims, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is processing claims from sparsely populated states in less than half the time.
The geographic inequity of VA wait times is fully detailed for the first time in an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The findings: Veterans in places like Fargo, N.D., and Lincoln, Neb., often win quick resolution of their compensation claims for problems ranging from back injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder, while those in metropolitan regions such as the Bay Area languish.
In California, veterans who file claims with any of the VA’s three regional offices – in Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego – wait more than nine months on average.
“A lot of this is about respect,” said Dottie Guy of San Francisco, a veteran who has waited since March 2011 for a decision on her claim related to PTSD, which began after a tour as a prison guard in Baghdad, and a degenerative ankle injury suffered during basic training.
“What we want is recognition that this is something that happened to you,” Guy said. “I wasn’t asked to go to Iraq – I was told. And now I am asking them to acknowledge that what they forced me to do jeopardized my physical health.”
Changing for worse
The VA has promised to speed its claims-processing times in urban areas. But so far, despite increased media and political scrutiny, change has headed in the wrong direction.
Nationwide, the VA took an average of more than eight months to process a claim in June – about 50 percent longer than the year before. Veterans in New York and north Texas waited the longest, at more than a year on average. Those who appeal a denied claim wait an average of 3 1/2 years for an answer.
The Bay Citizen, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, revealed in April that 80 percent of veterans served by the VA’s Oakland office were waiting more than 125 days for a response on their claims. Four months later, more than 90 percent of claims filed in Oakland have been pending at least four months, the highest proportion in the country.
As of June, the average wait for a veteran to get an answer on a disability claim from the Oakland office was about 11 months – up 35 percent from the year before.
‘Slap in the face’
“It’s a slap in the face,” said Adam Fields of Modesto, who served two tours with the Marines in Iraq and has been waiting since November 2010 for a ruling on his claim for benefits for a traumatic brain injury.
Fields said he sustained three concussions in Iraq that have contributed to persistent short-term memory loss.
“Sometimes I get in the car, and I forget where I’m going,” said Fields, who supports his wife and 5-year-old son by driving a scrap-metal truck in Stockton, two hours from the closest VA hospital.
“If the VA approved my claim, I could afford to take time off to get regular treatment,” he said.
The difference in response times between the VA office in Oakland and offices in more rural areas is stark. In Boise, Idaho, for example, the average wait for a decision on a claim was six months as of June, five months shorter than in Oakland. In Sioux Falls, S.D., it was four months.
A VA spokesman did not respond to inquiries seeking an explanation for the dramatic difference in claims processing times.
Money but no results
Delays have increased despite a new $300 million computer system and 3,300 claims processors hired since 2010 – 765 of them for additional positions.
The department has pledged to eliminate the claims backlog by 2015, but VA data show the number of veterans waiting for a decision is growing – to more than 907,000 as of July 30.
The computer system has been launched at just four of the VA’s regional offices, none of them in California. The vast majority of claims still are in paper file folders, which must be physically passed from one claims representative to another.
“If you have ever walked into one of our regional offices, you would see stacks and stacks of paper,” Allison Hickey, the agency’s undersecretary for benefits, told reporters in July.
Claims pile up
By 2015, Hickey said, all 58 offices will be computerized. In the meantime, new claims are arriving more quickly than the backlog is being cleared.
In 2011, 1.3 million veterans filed claims for benefits, according to VA data, a combination of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and aging Vietnam veterans, many with new claims based on illnesses the government now acknowledges stem from Agent Orange exposure. Since 2010, the agency has seen the number of new claims filed annually increase by 48 percent, while the number of claims representatives has increased by just 5 percent.
Improvements in battlefield medicine mean Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are more likely to survive multiple deployments, the VA said in a statement, and as a result, veterans “are returning with triple the medical issues of previous generations, driving the complexity of these claims and their associated workload to an all-time high.”
Veterans’ advocates say that makes the growing VA delays even more disturbing.
“We’re seeing people break and snap like we’ve never seen before,” said Shad Meshad, a Vietnam veteran and former combat medic who leads the National Veterans Foundation in Los Angeles.
In May 2011, a federal appeals court in San Francisco found that an average of 18 veterans commit suicide each day.
VA officials have said they are about to turn things around.
“We are already implementing our plan and are getting good early results,” Hickey told a House oversight subcommittee July 18.
But on the ground, there is little evidence that those steps are making a difference. Average wait times at all four offices equipped with the new computer system have increased. At three of the four offices, the number of pending claims also has grown.
An inspector general’s report released in May also revealed that staff at the VA’s Oakland office failed to process 39 percent of claims correctly and did not inform veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan that they are entitled to free mental health care. One disability claim, the inspector general found, had languished for 8 1/2 years.
“We voted for these additional resources – we expected to see results. We’re not seeing them,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
“I used to take them at their word,” McNerney said. “I can’t do that anymore.”
Delays by region
For an interactive map showing wait times for veterans’ disability claims by regional Department of Veterans Affairs offices, go to http://cironline.org/veteransclaims.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 2012, by Aaron Glantz (Center for Investigative Reporting)