Disaster

03.11.13

Under Obama, VA’s Problems Get Worse

Despite Obama’s pledge to fix the ‘broken VA bureaucracy,’ benefits claims are taking longer than ever to process, reports Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ ability to quickly provide service-related benefits has virtually collapsed under President Barack Obama, according to internal VA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and authenticated by the agency. 

Those documents, which the VA has yet to share with Congress or the public, show that the delays new veterans face before receiving disability compensation and other benefits often are far longer than the agency has publicly acknowledged. The documents also offer insight into some of the reasons for those delays.

The agency tracks and widely reports the average wait time: 273 days. But the internal data indicates that veterans filing their first claim, including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wait nearly two months longer, between 316 and 327 days. Those filing for the first time in America’s major population centers wait up to twice as long—642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles, and 542 days in Chicago.

The ranks of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits grew from 11,000 in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, to 245,000 in December—an increase of more than 2,000 percent.

As a candidate, Obama had promised to revamp a “broken VA bureaucracy,” but the documents reveal that many of the administration’s attempts—including efforts to boost staffing and computerize claims processing—have fallen apart in the implementation. Calls to the White House press office were not returned.

Despite agency promises to eliminate the claims backlog by 2015, the internal documents show the VA expects the number of veterans waiting—currently about 900,000—to continue to increase throughout 2013 and top a million by the end of this month.

“I’m not surprised at the number of us that kill ourselves,” said Lincoln Capstick, an unemployed Iraq War veteran in Indiana, where the average wait on new claims is 612 days.

Capstick said his electricity was cut off three times while he waited for the VA to grant a disability claim for traumatic brain injury, headaches, and a variety of leg and knee injuries sustained when a military contractor’s SUV ran him over in the desert near the Iraq-Kuwait border.

“There were periods where I thought of killing myself,” Capstick said. “You just get so hopeless.” According to the VA, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he was not surprised that the VA’s internal documents painted a much gloomier picture than the agency’s public pronouncements.

“One of the biggest oversight challenges we’ve encountered is just getting the VA to engage in an honest conversation,” Miller said.

The agency’s biggest problem, he said, is a “culture of complacency.”

The VA downplayed the importance of the internal documents.

The agency still intends to meet its goal of resolving nearly all claims within four months by 2015, VA Press Secretary Joshua Taylor said in an interview. He blamed the skyrocketing delays on a 50 percent increase in the number of claims filed, a combination of an uptick in returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and Vietnam veterans requesting compensation for illnesses newly connected to Agent Orange. The VA also has made it easier for veterans to file claims for PTSD and Gulf War Illness, Taylor said.

In a statement, the agency argued that it “consistently provides our numbers during Congressional hearings and briefings. What is not available online or in these reports is generally available on request.”

“There were periods where I thought of killing myself,” Capstick said. “You just get so hopeless.”

The VA typically takes months to respond to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Freedom of Information Act requests, often stating that information requested must be manually tabulated. Yet the internal documents show the agency tracks its performance at an extremely granular level of detail. The agency also failed to provide this information to attorneys in Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, a federal class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, which died when the Supreme Court refused to review the appeal in January.

“They have a lot more detailed information than we were led to believe,” said Ryan Hassanein, a partner at Morrison Foerster, the law firm that represented the veterans.

Lawmakers who have been working on the issue said they hadn’t seen the documents before.

Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat and Vietnam veteran, joined other members of the Northern California delegation to meet with senior VA officials February 27 to discuss the issue. He said VA officials have told him they are making slow but steady progress.

“I’m not going to be an apologist for the president or for the VA,” Thompson said, “but this was a long festering mess when they came in. I think they have made improvements.”

The VA’s internal documents tell a different story. They show that the average wait time for veterans filing disability claims fell by more than a third under President George W. Bush, even as more than 320,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans filed disability claims.

The documents show delays escalated only after Obama took office and have more than doubled since, as 455,000 more returning veterans filed their claims.

Hearings on the backlog are planned in the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees, with the Senate hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

“VA is at a day of reckoning,” said Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and former senior VA project manager who now works for the Washington, D.C.–area law firm Bergmann & Moore. The agency, he said, “needs to publicly come forward and disclose the severity of the claims delay and error crisis, because Congress can’t fix it until VA is forthcoming about all their symptoms.”

The documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting shed light on why the agency is failing to make headway despite public and political pressure and its own promises.

They show that while the agency has spent four years and $537 million on a new computer system, 97 percent of all veterans’ claims remain on paper. Since those numbers were tallied by the agency in January, the VA’s two top technology officers have announced their resignations, saying they had accomplished their goals.

On February 27, the agency’s principal deputy undersecretary for benefits also announced he was quitting.

In interviews, workers at five VA offices said they were exhausted by the ever-growing piles of paperwork, with files becoming so thick that employees frequently have asked veterans to resend medical records or military service documents simply because the claims workers could not locate them.

Cindy Indof, who handles appeals at the VA office in Columbia, S.C., said it is not uncommon for her to see the same medical information in a veteran’s claim repeated two or even three times. The growth in paperwork, she said, is compounded by a points system that gives performance bonuses to workers for sending letters to veterans but not for spending extra time reading a claims file.

In its statement, the VA said the computer system would be launched at all of its regional offices by the end of the year. “With this deployment,” the agency said, “production will increase.”

The agency’s public pronouncements about hiring 3,300 additional claim processors since 2010 to cope with the influx of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans also were misleading, the documents show.

Because of turnover and the loss of more than 2,000 workers temporarily paid through stimulus funds, staffing at the VA’s 58 regional offices actually has increased by fewer than 300 people since September 2010—even as the volume of new claims increased dramatically.

At a majority of the regional offices—including those in New York; Chicago; Los Angeles; Waco, Texas; and Oakland, California—the VA employs fewer people than it did two years ago, according to the VA’s internal documents.

“You have a workforce that is completely burnt out, and there is no help in sight,” said Darren Foster, a Gulf War veteran who worked for the VA for 15 years before leaving in October. He now processes worker compensation claims for the Labor Department, in an office that he says is more efficient and better managed.

“It was a hard decision to leave,” Foster said. “I love helping veterans. But I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

This story was produced by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Contact the reporter at aglantz@cironline.org.

130310-VA-graphic-full