ADVOCATE: “We’re seeing people break and snap like we’ve never seen before”
Most California veterans forced to wait nearly a year or longer for their VA benefits to be decided; 50% of VA decisions statewide erroneous
by Aaron Glantz, Shane Shifflett
The Bay Citizen, Center For Investigative Reporting, Aug. 29, 2012
If you’re a Northern California veteran who has waited a year for a decision on a war-related disability claim, you might consider a move to South Dakota – where the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs typically responds in less than half the time.
Returning home from Afghanistan to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta? Veterans who live in Lincoln, Neb., and Fargo, N.D., get their benefits faster.
The geographic inequity of VA wait times is fully detailed for the first time in an analysis by The Bay Citizen and its parent organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Simply put: Veterans in sparsely populated states often encounter quick resolution of their compensation claims for problems ranging from back injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder while those in metropolitan areas 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.
“It’s a slap in the face,” said Adam Fields, a former Marine from Modesto, who has been waiting since November 2010 for a ruling on his claim for benefits for traumatic brain injury.
During his two tours in Iraq, Fields said he survived multiple vehicle rollovers and sustained three concussions, which 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 Bay Citizen’s city-by-city data populates an online interactive map that will automatically update weekly, documenting in real time the progress of recent VA promises to improve.
So far, change has headed in the wrong direction, despite increased media and political scrutiny. 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 3½ years for an answer.
Why the dramatic differences?
A VA spokesman did not respond to numerous email and telephone inquiries seeking an explanation.
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 shows the number of veterans waiting for a decision is growing – to more than 907,000 as of July 30, with 832,000 of them waiting for disability or survivor benefits, while thousands more seek a pension or GI Bill education benefits.
To date, the computer system has been launched at just four of the VA’s regional offices, none of them in California.
Read the rest of this story:
April 15, 2012: Massive VA disability claims backlog uncovered. Serious problems found at VA’s Northern California offices, prompting veterans’ outrage and promises by VA officials of immediate action.
April 16, 2012: VA responds, announces overhaul of 12 regional offices nationwide; VA does not target overhaul at Oakland regional office, the second-slowest in the country after Seattle.
April 18, 2012: In a hearing, congressional leaders grill Tom Murphy, VA compensation services director, about the backlog.
April 19, 2012: Sixteen Congressional leaders send letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, urging “immediate help” for Oakland.
April 26, 2012: Congresswoman Jackie Speier announces VA’s Oakland regional office director, Douglas Bragg, to meet California congressional delegation May 21 to discuss backlog. Separately, House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller pledges “vigorous oversight.”
May 2, 2012: Additional problems discovered with VA benefits for employment programs, tax breaks and college tuition fee waivers.
May 10, 2012: VA’s IG releases report on Oakland regional office; finds errors in claims, veterans waiting up to 8½ years for benefits. Reports on Los Angeles and San Diego regional offices find problems.
May 21, 2012: More than 200 angry veterans confront VA officials at town hall meeting in San Francisco, hoping to have their claims processed onsite; VA claims agents overwhelmed, half the veterans who brought unresolved claims are turned away.
May 31, 2012: The House of Representatives passes a bill by California Congresswoman Barbara Lee requiring VA to provide plan to Congress to eliminate backlog and improve the accuracy of claims.
Watch video report of Marine Corps veterans struggling with PTSD and suicide while waiting for VA benefits:
Filed under: Resources Tagged: | Adam Fields, Center for Investigative Reporting, Congressman Darrell Issa, Congressman Jerry McNerney, Dottie Guy, National Veterans Foundation, Shad Meshad, VA benefits backlog, VA Regional Office Oakland, Veterans Affairs