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Oakland VA Office Makes Veterans Wait 618 Days for Disability Pay

| March 13, 2013
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by Aaron Glantz, The Bay Citizen

The Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to provide key information to Congress and the public that shows the agency’s ability to quickly provide service-related benefits has virtually collapsed under President Barack Obama.

Infographic: Veterans waiting longer

Internal VA documents, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and authenticated by the agency, reveal that delays newly returning veterans face before receiving disability compensation and other benefits 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 618 days at the Oakland office, which serves Northern and Central California.

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.

“It’s about what’s due to you, about being taken care of physically and mentally,” said Aundray Rogers, an Army veteran of the Iraq War and president of the veterans club at City College of San Francisco.

Rogers, who waited more than two years for the VA to grant his disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder, said he regularly has flashbacks of explosions and carnage while on campus and in class.

He is in the process of appealing the VA’s decision that he is 20 percent disabled. The low rating, which entitles him to $255 a month, “takes away from the validity” of his wartime experience, he said.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., 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 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 spokesman Joshua Taylor said. 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 separate emailed 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.”

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 post-traumatic stress disorder. The lawsuit 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. Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat, who met senior VA officials Feb. 27 to discuss problems at the Oakland office, said she was informed that the agency was making slow but steady progress.

“I’m not going to be an apologist for the president or the VA, but this was a long festering mess when they came in,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, a St. Helena Democrat and Vietnam veteran who attended the same meeting. “I think they have made improvements.”

The VA’s internal documents tell a different story.

In April, 16 members of Congress sent VA Secretary Eric Shinseki a letter demanding that the agency “send immediate help” to the Oakland office.

Since then, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits from the Oakland office has increased by nearly 6,000, to 19,077, and the average wait has increased from 326 days to 441, according to internal documents. The typical wait time for Northern California veterans filing new claims, including those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, increased from 521 days to 618.

During that time, the total volume of claims pending also dropped slightly as the agency began mailing thousands of local veterans’ claims to offices in Nebraska and Oklahoma.

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 Feb. 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.

Taylor, the VA spokesman, said the computer system would be launched at all regional offices by the end of the year. “The transition is under way. We’re at the midpoint. We’re not at the endpoint yet,” he said.

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 Oakland– 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 workers’ 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 edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/AlabamaPCBtoxicVets Sue Frasier

    The problem here is not the president — it is VA Secretary Eric Shinseki who many of us opposed at the time he was appointed and is unqualified for the job. He only holds a college degree in ENGLISH and it won’t be until the men veterans stop advocating for “commander types” and chest-of-medals Icons to hold this job that we will ever see real and meaningful CHANGE at the VA. The top job simply MUST go to licensed and qualified Medical Administrators from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and NOT from DOD. Let go of it boys, because you are killing us all with the incompetence of DOD types. —- Sue Frasier, Army 1970, national veterans activist.

  • Gerry Pong

    All that media hype about the first lady and first vice-lady helping and caring about vets is, uummm, HYPE!

  • dog97209

    Fire Shinseki! On behave of Nam Veterans who have waited so many years for action, Shinseki should have to wait 618 days for his severance check.

  • Alex

    It’s not the head of the administration’s fault, it’s the actual institution that can’t handle all of these claims, VA was not designed to deal with this many claims. My solution would be getting Congress to create a VA Backlog Administration whose sole purpose would be to address the claims that are backlogged, while the VABA was doing that Congress would have time to investigate and find out exactly why VA has this backlog and then introduce the proper legislation to fix these problems. VA will never be perfect nor will any other agency to our government, but when it comes to soliders I think we need to as sensitive as possible to their needs and address those needs above budgetary fights or manufactured crisis.

  • Julie

    My husband waited more than 7 years for his service-connected disability benefits – that included two levels of appeals and one hearing in front of a JAG.

  • http://vato21stcentury.blogspot.com/ Jim S.

    Military and Vets On FLOTUS and SLOTUS, Administration and it’s Cabinet, “Best – Ever”: “We haven’t had this kind of visibility from the White House—ever.” Joyce Raezer – Dec. 30, 2011″, and plenty more of similar since Joyce spoke and also will continue, as will the obstruction as the tepubs continue seeking to privatize the Veterans Administration, the peoples responsibility to those that serve them!

    Iraq War 10-Year Anniversary: 19 March – Done ‘In Our Names’!!
    After abandoning the main missions, and world help, for why we even sent the military into that region!!

    “We are dealing with veterans, not procedures—with their problems, not ours.” —General Omar Bradley, First Administrator of the Veterans Administration

    “If military action is worth our troops’ blood, it should be worth our treasure, too — not just in the abstract, but in the form of a specific ante by every American.” -Andrew Rosenthal 10 Feb. 2013

    “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” – Abraham Lincoln

    No Revenues = Still No Sacrifice = That’s Called ‘Support’ For The Troops = DeJa-Vu all over again!!
    Neither war nor especially the results of, decades to come added to previous decades and wars of, have been paid for as the abandoned, and now forgotten, continues as those sent want in a drawdown to accomplish at least a very small portion of those main missions sent to accomplish!!

    USN All Shore ’67-’71 GMG3 Vietnam In Country ’70-’71

  • Squatch

    Just heard on the local news about an Army ranger vet here in Seattlt who has been waiting for more than 500 days for his VA laim to complete processing and still no money. With all the people out of work it should’nt be difficult to staff up an office at the VA. hope they’re not holdin out for college grads and bachelor degrees for new hires. a high school grad could get the job done. Sounds like theVA needs bunches of new hires to handle the huge volume of work.

    • DocG

      Yeah, the ones that are there take off early almost every Friday. F-ers.

  • Glen Bowman

    I got married in May 2011 and filed for a change of dependent status for my monthly VA Disability & Compensation benefits in person at the VARO – Oakland, CA. It’s been 22 months (about 660 days) and I’m still getting the single rate for my disability rating. The longer they wait, the fatter the check will be!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenteroo Kent Johnson

    I understand they spent over 500 million on a computer system to automate the claims process (1990′s technology) which hasn’t worked. Probably somewhere in the beltway (which has NEVER solved any problem requiring creativity). Heck, drop that much money in Silicon Valley and you’d have it done in 6 months. My cat can scan a folder full of documents. But wait, with 34 electoral votes we still don’t exist to Washington.

  • DocG

    I find it VERY interesting that these guys in the Oakland office leave early almost EVERY Friday……..While I am now on 400+++ days past due for my claim. Beyond frustrated.