UNFAIR

08.29.12

Veterans Waiting Even Longer for Benefits, Especially in Big Cities

Wait times for veterans get longer, and geographic inequalities increase, according to a new analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting. INTERACTIVE: Updating every Monday, see how many veteran claims are pending in cities across the country and how your region compares.

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 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.

Two tours in Iraq left Crystal Colon with a bad back and PTSD. Her second deployment came after her best friend, a fellow soldier, killed himself during training. Colon filed a disability claim with the VA’s Waco, Texas, office in May 2010. But when she moved to Illinois a year later, the agency failed to mail her claim file to Chicago for nearly nine months.

Two years after she filed her claim, Colon is still waiting—and hoping.

“It does a lot to your psyche,” she said. 

The city-by-city data populates an online interactive map that will automatically update weekly, documenting in real time the progress of recent VA initiatives 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.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Adam Fields, a former Marine from Modesto, Calif., who has been waiting since November 2010 for a ruling on his claim for benefits for traumatic brain injury.

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. 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 July 11.

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, so without dramatic improvement, disabled veterans will face even longer wait times in the future.

At the current rate, for example, it would take the VA three years to resolve every disability claim pending in San Diego – the office with the worst combination of backlog and clearance rate in June– if not a single additional claim were filed. In July, Los Angeles stepped into that worst overall slot.

That scenario won’t occur. 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 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 Los Angeles-based National Veterans Foundation.

“When soldiers come home from two, three, or four tours with post-traumatic stress disorder and hit these kinds of walls, they can get frustrated and just give up,” Meshad said.  In May 2011 a federal appeals court in San Francisco found that an average of 18 veterans commit suicide each day.

Identifying the root of the delays is complicated by political finger-pointing. Democrats and many veterans’ advocates argue that the VA failed to prepare for an onslaught of wounded veterans after the Bush administration began the war in Iraq in 2003. Republicans counter that the backlog of disability claims has exploded under President Barack Obama and has continued to worsen in recent months, despite additional scrutiny from the media and members of Congress.

Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, recently have seized on the issue, holding hearings and demanding results.

In response, 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 so far. 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.

In Salt Lake City, which has the new system, the average wait time has increased to 236 days -- and nearly 20,000 veterans are waiting. 

“We voted for these additional resources, we expected to see results; we’re not seeing them,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Democrat from California who sits on the House Committe on Veterans’ Affairs.

In April, after the Bay Citizen, a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, revealed that 80 percent of veterans served by the VA’s Oakland, Calif., office were waiting more than 125 days for an answer, McNerney wrote a letter, signed by 15 colleagues, to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The letter demanded that Shinseki “send immediate help” to the Oakland office.

Four months later, 90 percent of claims filed in Oakland have been pending at least four months, the highest proportion in the country.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Adam Fields, a former Marine from Modesto, Calif., 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.

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee. It was produced by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the country’s largest investigative reporting team.