by Aaron Glantz, Shane Shifflett, Center For Investigative Reporting
Under fire for its growing backlog of disability benefits claims, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last July set itself a goal: By year’s end, 40 percent of veterans would wait no more than four months for an answer on compensation claims for conditions as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Instead, things got worse. A Center for Investigative Reporting analysis shows the ranks of veterans facing long waits increased by 18,000 since July 11, when the agency’s undersecretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, told reporters that the delays were unacceptable and pledged that the backlog would begin to shrink “right now.”
By early January, the total number of veterans waiting for all claims had dipped slightly but remained above 900,000, with 630,000 – 70 percent – waiting longer than four months.
Informed of the missed deadline, VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld amended the goal: The agency, he said in an email, now expects to turn the corner in 2014.
Yet two initiatives to reduce the logjam have failed to produce results so far, according to a CIR analysis of VA data. Four years after it was widely touted, a $537 million computer system has successfully processed 75 claims. And an effort to offload claims from the busiest offices has overloaded offices that previously had been performing well.
Veterans groups are outraged and argue it is time for President Barack Obama to step in.
“Who is being held accountable? Who’s being fired? What change is being made?” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We’ve been patient for a long time and to hear, ‘Be patient for a while longer’ when you’re a disabled veteran is ridiculous.”
There are a few bright spots. In Northern California, where a report by The Bay Citizen – now part of the Center for Investigative Reporting – touched off congressional outrage, nearly 5,000 fewer veterans have been waiting for more than four months. The VA’s Oakland office closed in June while its staff was retrained.
Fewer veterans also are waiting in other areas where media outlets picked up CIR’s coverage, including Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Waco, Texas.
Many factors no doubt play a role. In an interview, Diana Rubens, the VA’s deputy undersecretary for field operations, agreed that offices in those areas had received extra attention from Washington, but said she wasn’t sure if it was the result of media scrutiny.
“Coincidence?” she said. “I don’t know.”
On an anecdotal basis, however, shining the spotlight on individual claimsmade a difference. Veterans featured in The Bay Citizen’s stories about wait times typically received benefits shortly after a reporter contacted the VA about them.
- The VA approved a pension benefits claim from World War II veteran James Alderson on Dec. 12, the day after CIR asked the agency about his case for a story about veterans who died while awaiting an answer. A week later, the agency sent a $6,057 retroactive benefit check to his widow.
- Navy medic Rachael Hairston received a call from the VA saying her claim had been approved Jan. 15, a day after CIR asked about her post-traumatic stress disorder claim while reporting this story. The Iraq veteran and her toddler had become homeless while she waited for two years. That same day, the VA transferred $39,075 in back pay to her bank account.
- The same week Army veteran Michael Grabski was featured in a story on delays at the Oakland office, the veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan received a call from a VA official who expedited his 2-year-old claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and a knee injury sustained during a patrol in Afghanistan. Grabski subsequently received two retroactive benefits checks totaling $45,000.
“It was a game changer,” he said of the story. After receiving his benefits, Grabski proposed to his longtime girlfriend and used a portion of the money to pay for their wedding at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco.
Now, the couple is house hunting in Napa. Grabski’s $1,628 monthly disability check, coupled with his wife’s salary as a warehouse manager, provides enough regular income for the couple to qualify for a home loan.
“After waiting so long, I feel like the next phase of my life has begun,” Grabski said.
Rubens acknowledged that the agency gave special attention to individual veterans whose problems were exposed in the media.
“It’s an unfortunate way that things have had to get done recently,” she said. In the future, she added, the VA aspires to process claims quickly “so you don’t have to make that phone call.”
Positive outcomes are the exception, however, not the rule. Between July and December, the average delay veterans across the nation faced increased by two weeks, to 273 days.
Despite shrinking backlogs in California, veterans there waited about five months longer by December than they had in July. Veterans filing claims with the Los Angeles office now face the longest delays in the nation – nearly 17 months on average –while Northern California veterans filing in Oakland wait an average of 14 months. More than 80 percent of veterans in both parts of the state wait more than four months. In San Diego, veterans wait an average of about 11 months for a decision, with 68 percent facing delays the VA considers unacceptable.
Wait times vary dramatically across the country, offering the VA the potential to shuffle the deck a bit. Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that in the fiscal year that ended in September, the VA transferred nearly 47,000 claims, including 1,800 mailed out of Oakland in the months following CIR’s coverage of problems at that office.
Based on the VA’s numbers, most of the offices experiencing a decline in inventory have been sending claims out, while those where the backlog is increasing have been receiving large numbers of those shifted claims.
At the Muskogee, Okla., regional office, which has received the bulk of claims transferred by Oakland, the number of veterans waiting more than four months increased by about 4,500. Previously, the Oklahoma office was processing claims faster than it received them.
“It’s like Whac-A-Mole,”said Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and former senior VA project manager who now works at the Washington, D.C.-area law firm Bergmann & Moore. “All the VA is trying to do is hide the problem instead of solving it.”
The transfers are about fairness, Rubens said. For a veteran, “it shouldn’t matter if I live in State A or State X, I should be getting the same treatment across the country.”
Even more claims are being transferred than the official tally, she added, because the agency frequently mails a claim from one office to another without first entering it into the computer system that tracks transfers.
For VA workers, all this shuffling is “demoralizing,” said Ron Robinson, an Army veteran who has worked for the past 16 years at the agency’s South Carolina office. That office shipped out 3,000 claims last year, yet still saw its backlog grow.
Robinson said a single veteran’s claim frequently is mailed back and forth between offices multiple times to clear up questions and inconsistencies. The extra transfers increase the chance that a claim will be lost, he said, and can alarm veterans who are not only unable to figure out how close they are to receiving their benefits, but even who is handling their claim.
“There is no sense of urgency,” said Sheryl Cornelius, 58, who lost her home to foreclosure while she waited a year for the agency to rule that her husband’s suicide was related to his service during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. On July 8, 2009, after a long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Jack Cornelius shot himself in the head in their Hinton, Okla., home.
“How many thousands of men have been buried with no questions asked or demanded from the VA?” she asked. “It makes me sick to think about.”
Criticism of the VA also is coming from official circles. In mid-January, the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the agency lacked “sound planning” and had no comprehensive plan to reduce the backlog.
In its written response to the audit, John Gingrich, the VA’s chief of staff, said the agency generally agrees with the GAO’s conclusions but argued that a series of reforms, including computerization of the claims process, called the Veterans Benefits Management System, will allow the agency to decide nearly all veterans’ compensation claims within four months by 2015.
Yet four years after the VA pledged the technology upgrade, computer systems have been deployed at 18 of the 58 regional offices. Even at the offices that have received computers, more than 90 percent of disability claims remain on paper. Of the 24,588 claims entered into the system between October and January, 75 had been completed by year’s end.
At the first four offices to pilot the system – Salt Lake City; Providence, R.I.; Fort Harrison, Mont.; and Wichita, Kan. – CIR found the number of veterans waiting more than four months has grown since the VA undersecretary’s July press conference.
On Monday, the VA’s independent inspector general released a report stating that the computer system, which so far has cost taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars, still had not been adequately tested and could not fully perform the seven key tasks that claims processors must perform to get veterans their benefits.
Rubens said that “the usability” of the computer system was improved during a series of tweaks in 2012 and that its use, and effectiveness, is poised to take off during the coming year.
But in Washington, observers are increasingly skeptical.
“All I see are promises,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney of California, formerly the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees the VA’s disability claims bureaucracy.
When he and other members of Congress ask questions, McNerney said, they get answers “that don’t quite square with reality.”
Edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee. This story was produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.cironline