Paperwork Buries Veterans’ Disability Claims
by Aaron Glantz
New York Times/Bay Citizen, April 14, 2012
Even after Ian Rodriguez left the Marine Corps in 2006, he still felt like he was in Iraq.
The burly veteran, who played defensive end on the College of San Mateo football team before joining the military, would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night at home in San Bruno and grab his girlfriend, putting both hands around her neck.
“I had no ill will toward her,” Mr. Rodriguez, 28, said in an interview, “but while I was asleep I felt like I was still back there, and I acted it out.” He said he slept with a .40-caliber Glock pistol under his pillow and drank a bottle of whiskey every night to help him forget the war and fall asleep.
In December 2006, Mr. Rodriguez filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing that he deserved a monthly disability check and priority mental health care from the agency because of post-traumatic stress disorder. More than five years later, he is still waiting for a final determination on his case.
Mr. Rodriguez is one of 870,000 veterans nationwide who are waiting for a decision on a disability claim from the V.A. The waiting list has more than doubled since President Obama took office, despite the appropriation of more than $300 million for a new computer system and the hiring of thousands of claims professionals nationwide.
The problem is particularly acute in the Bay Area, where, according to figures provided by the V.A., returning soldiers wait an average of 313 days for a decision. Eighty percent must wait at least 125 days. Of the nearly 60 V.A. offices around the country, the Oakland office is the slowest.
“The place is filled with paper, piles of it, everywhere,” said Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from San Mateo who toured the Oakland office last month as part of a meeting with the agency’s regional director on behalf of a group of constituents with claims dating as far back as six years.
According to Ms. Speier, the backlog in Oakland has grown so severe that all new claims are immediately sent to V.A. offices in Lincoln, Neb., and Muskogee, Okla., where the backlog is less serious.
“It is an epidemic of delay,” Ms. Speier said. “I did not exactly leave invigorated.”
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