The VA says it has more than 800,000 pending claims in its 58 regional offices, with an average wait time of 273 days.
Backlogs at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are causing quite a few headaches for veterans across the U.S.
Take William Kasten for example. He suffers from debilitating back pain and depression after serving in the Coast Guard. Kasten was injured in Panama in 1995 as part of a counterdrug mission when he was thrown headfirst into the bulkhead of a cigarette boat, leaving him with chronic severe back pain.
Kasten can no longer work due to his injuries, and has had his home foreclosed on twice and his car repossessed — all while waiting for money promised to him by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Oakland, Calif., regional office.
As of April 16, Kasten had waited more than 700 days for his money, and only had $140 left in his family’s savings. Unfortunately, Kasten’s story is all too common for veterans in the United States. Part of the backlog occurred after many post-9/11 veterans began coming home with physical and mental disabilities.
“This is just a national scandal,” said Kasten, 56, who is married with three children. “It is unbelievable.”
The VA has acknowledged the nationwide backlog, saying it has more than 800,000 pending claims in its 58 regional offices.
President Obama pledged more than four years ago he would reduce the waiting period for disabled veterans, but according to the Kansas City Star, average wait times have increased from five months to nine months. As a result, the number of claims pending for a year or longer has increased 2,000 percent.
A claim is considered lost in the backlog after a veteran waits more than four months. Journalist Aaron Glantz, who has written extensively on the topic for the Center for Investigative Reporting, says the average wait time in the U.S. is 273 days.
The regional office in Oakland, Calif., which serves veterans in Northern California, including Kasten, has been singled out as having one of the worst backlogs. The office has more than 30,000 claims pending and has an average wait period of 618 days for initial claims.
That doesn’t mean veterans in other states have it any easier.
Take Sharon Barber for example. The Georgia resident was honorably discharged from the military in 1986, and says she has been waiting 27 years to increase her veteran disability benefits after her medical records disappeared from the VA Hospital.
“They destroyed my life, financially and physically,” Barber said, asking, “This is how they decided to thank me for serving this country?”
The Atlanta Regional Office has more than 30,000 pending claims and the average claim takes about a year to process. While the turnaround time is higher in Atlanta than Oakland, waiting to hear from the VA is not any easier.
“You call in. You cannot get anybody. You cannot leave an email because their box is full,” said Richard Leder, who is also a veteran.
Backlog barricade makes difficult transition for vets
“This is the biggest issue facing new veterans that’s preventing them from transitioning on to civilian life — getting health care and compensation for injuries they suffered,” said Ann Weeby, 32, who served in Iraq and now is an advocate with the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Commission. “They fought for their country. They shouldn’t have to fight for their benefits.”
Eric Shinseki is the secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs. He told the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last month that the agency would remedy the backlog issue by 2015, and blamed part of the delay on the agency not having the right technology to handle the workload.
Until recently, the VA relied on paper documents to file a claim. If a file got lost, the VA would have a veteran submit their paperwork again. Now the agency has a $537 million computer system that is expected to help speed up the claims process by lessening the agency’s reliance on a paper system. While it’s still early in the process, and more staff have been added, wait times have still not improved.
“There’s a disconnect between the people in Washington who say they’re working on it and vets who tell us every day that they’re struggling,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “What are vets supposed to do between now and 2015? Call up Eric Shinseki and have him pay your bills? Until then, you’re in purgatory, and it’s wrong.”
Shinseki maintains that the agency is doing its best, given that they are dealing with an unprecedented number of claims from veterans involving mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. In April, Shinseki said veterans who served in Vietnam and the Gulf War are filing new claims now that the VA has added exposure to Agent Orange to its list of diseases, along with other conditions that previous administrations had dismissed.
But Rieckhoff says the wait times are unacceptable. “As you’re waiting at the Oakland office 618 days, the bills are piling up,” he said. “The marital problems increase. The mental health issues increase. These are the faces of bureaucratic failure.”
Drew Early is an Atlanta-based attorney specializing in veterans’ disability benefits. He says that while the VA offices are overwhelmed, the paperwork and rules for filing a claim are difficult for veterans to navigate.
“What I see on a daily basis is very poorly-processed claims from very deserving people who cannot go up against the second largest cabinet agency in the U.S. government,” he said.