Benefits backlog for veterans has shrunk, but critics say VA still not working fast enough
OAKLAND — Whenever Vietnam veteran Don Cooper asked about his request for an in-home aide, the Oakland VA regional benefit office told him the same thing: A decision would take 14 months.
“Well, I’m going to be dead in 14 months,” said Cooper, 72, of Livermore, who has stage 4 colon cancer. “But I couldn’t get anybody to listen to me.”
A year ago, amid outrage that VA bureaucracy was failing America’s veterans, the agency promised to move quicker to help vets such as Cooper.
While significant progress initially was made in reducing the national benefits backlog, the momentum has slowed. And scrutiny on Oakland has intensified because the center, which serves all Northern California veterans, has been operating without a permanent executive director.
Even as the Oakland backlog numbers have shrunk, the latest weekly VA report shows that the center still has 12,103 claims pending longer than 125 days and 20,515 overall — taking an average of 292 days to complete.
“For the 20,000 folks in the Bay Area who are stuck in this mess, it’s bad and it’s not getting any better,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which recently issued a critical report of the VA. “In many ways, Oakland has been ground zero for all the frustrations in the larger system.”
The situation, critics say, is exacerbated due to the lack of a director.
“Oakland is one of the worst in the country, and we need a director ASAP because time is not on the side of many of these veterans,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, whose office intervened on Cooper’s behalf. “This ‘delay until they die’ approach is just wrong. But nothing is going to be accomplished without a captain at the helm.”
Even with a director, Julio Tapia, 65, a Vietnam veteran from San Lorenzo, didn’t think much was being accomplished. One of his two benefit claims took 14 months to be completed by the Oakland office. The other took five years.
“Nobody asked my opinion when it was time to go get shot at, but it was my duty,” said Tapia, a retired engineer. “But I felt totally disrespected by this process. They sent me letters that made me feel like a criminal. They out-and-out lie to you. We deserve better.”
By March 2013, the national backlog had ballooned to more than 600,000 claims (a backlogged claim is one that has been waiting more than 125 days for a decision on whether a injury or illness is service-connected and warrants compensation). Oakland was labeled as one of the country’s most troubled regional centers with an average wait time of 623 days, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, which cited internal documents.
Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki instituted mandatory overtime with the goal of eliminating the national backlog by 2015. But 350,000 claims remain, and a perfect storm of factors continue to contribute to the logjam.
About 2.6 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 1.7 million now are veterans. Improvements in battlefield medicine saved lives, but they also left more veterans dealing with permanent injuries as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
There also has been a flood of new claims from aging veterans as the VA expanded eligibility on conditions such as Agent Orange-related illness. Cooper and Tapia, who also turned to Swalwell’s office for help, are among these older veterans.
Each praises VA medical care, but both have harsh words for the claims process.
“It’s a case of day and night,” said Tapia, who settled claims for Agent Orange and PTSD. “The Palo Alto VA people are wonderful,” he said, referring to the VA hospital in Palo Alto where he received care. “It works there, and it doesn’t work with these fools in Oakland. You’re a person in one place, and just a number in the other.”
One issue has been bugs in a new computer system, which is designed to end the agency’s reliance on paper. Swalwell said the system still cannot access Department of Defense records.
“The American people, who are attached to Twitter, Facebook, online banking and travel planning, have very little patience with the excuse that systems cannot talk to one another,” he added. “That’s inexcusable to a country that is home to Silicon Valley.”
Willie Clark, the VA’s western area director, said he understands the frustrations and stressed that processing claims is complex and time-consuming. Helping veterans is personal for Oakland staff, Clark added, because 57 percent of the more than 300 employees are veterans themselves.
Still, he acknowledged that “folks shouldn’t be waiting, period. I feel badly for them. When we read the critiques, we already know that we need to do better. We have to get the backlog down. But our employees are working hard, and we are moving in the right direction.”
In December, Swalwell and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, wrote a letter to Shinseki that was signed by 19 members of the California congressional delegation and urged a swift replacement for Douglas Bragg, the Oakland chief who retired in January.
That didn’t happen.
“There’s no logical reason to explain why they don’t have a full-time director,” said Darin Selnick of Concerned Veterans of America, a former special assistant to the VA secretary. “I would say that the vast majority of staff are just trying to do their job. The average claim examiner is not the problem. But management, based on my experience, is in over their heads.”
The office, Clark responded, is not without leadership. Michele Kwok is its interim director, and Clark is spending extra time in Oakland. Also, a new director has been identified and is awaiting approval.
Cooper, who served two years in Vietnam, just wants help.
He spends much of his time in bed, which is why he asked for an aide. His Palo Alto VA oncologist wrote a letter on his behalf, but it was lost by the Oakland office.
Cooper is staying with his daughter in Reno, where he can receive treatment at another VA facility. He was hopeful after Swalwell’s office got involved. But last week, Cooper received a letter from the Oakland office: His claim, for a second time, had been denied.
“They do things their own way,” he said. “But there has to be a better way of treating veterans, doesn’t there?”