The VA Backlog Keeps Getting Worse
by William Selway
Bloomberg Businessweek, June 07, 2012
Like most politicians trolling for votes, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney rarely miss an opportunity to praise America’s veterans, particularly the troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here’s Romney on May 2: “We are united as one nation in our gratitude to our country’s heroes.” And Obama on Memorial Day: “As long as I’m president, we will make sure you and your loved ones will receive the benefits you’ve earned and the respect you deserve. America will be there for you.”
That’s not the way it’s worked for Hector Esparza. A former Army sergeant, Esparza was a gunner escorting convoys to Baghdad during the bloodiest days of the Iraq war. In 2004 he suffered a brain injury when a rocket blew up his Humvee.
Now home in Killeen, Tex., he’s unable to work due to debilitating headaches and post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs designated him only 60 percent disabled, which means he and his wife and 6-year-old daughter live on $1,200 a month from the VA.
Since 2009, Esparza has been trying to qualify for full disability. In April he received a letter from the agency: With so many claims piling up, it could take another six months before anyone reviews his case. “I was pretty confident that I was going to be taken care of and my family was going to be taken care of,” he says. “I feel lied to and disappointed because I don’t see that happening.”
Esparza is one of hundreds of thousands of former soldiers suffering the effects of a VA overwhelmed by a decade of fighting overseas. With the Iraq war finished and troops returning from Afghanistan, record numbers of wounded former service members are turning to the federal government for disability pay. Over the past four years the number of disability cases filed with the VA jumped 48 percent, to 1.3 million in 2011.
The agency expects the demand from wounded vets to rise as more leave the military. When Obama took office in 2009, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki set a goal of resolving disability claims within 125 days, with 98 percent accuracy. Since then the backlog has only grown, and errors have gone up. Currently about 905,000 claims are awaiting action.
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