Veterans Lament Slow Service at Oakland VA
Randy’s mother died while waiting for benefits. Adam asked in vain two years ago for help with his brain injury.
Bringing up the question of claims at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Oakland office, and you invite a seemingly endless series of such heartbreaking stories.
Scott Shafer got that response on July 31 when he hosted a KQED Forum about the sluggish bureaucracy there. His guest, Aaron Glantz of The Bay Citizen, documented an average wait time of a year before claims are processed. The center has a backlog of 32,000 claims and 40% error rate, he found.
The department knows about the problem, and is promising to do better. Willie Clark, Veterans Affairs western region director for the VA said the employees there were recently trained to improve their speed. “We’re trying to increase efficiency,” he said. But he pointed out that the volume of claims is huge – about a million a year for the whole system.
It might help if the department caught up with modern times. Only 4 out of 58 offices are computerized, according to Glantz.
Whatever the reason, veterans report agonizing delays. Jim called Shafer from Sebastapol to say he was suffering terrible post traumatic stress disorder from two tours of duty as a helicopter gunner doing medical evacuations in Vietnam.
“The longest I’ve worked anyplace since then is three-and-a-half years,” he said. “I’ve been homeless twice. I tried to commit suicide three times. I’m just going through my third divorce.”
Jim said he had filed a claim with the VA in 2002 and been rejected. He reapplied in January of 2011 and still hasn’t heard back. “I can’t talk to anyone,” he said. “No one seems to know anything about it.”
Until the VA rules that a veteran’s disability is “service-connected” – suffered in the line of duty – it won’t pay for the care the veteran needs. So, Jim says, if he goes to group therapy, he has to pay $1,200 out of pocket every month.
His was one of several such stories Shafer fielded. John called from San Jose to say that he had filed a claim 450 days ago for peripheral neuropathy and hearing loss he attributes to his exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide sprayed widely on Vietnamese jungles. While he waits for a rule, “I just continue to progressively lose feeling in my extremities,” he said.
Glantz doesn’t expect any improvement soon.
But one vet who called found a way of getting through the bureaucracy – he called his representative in Congress and heard back from the VA the next day.