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VA's Ability To Quickly Provide Benefits Plummets Under Obama

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Veterans Benefits
VA's Ability To Quickly Provide Benefits Plummets Under Obama
GUESTS:Aaron Glantz, reporter, Center for Investigative Reporting Jack Harkins, Lt.Col (Ret) USMC, Chairman of the United Veterans Council

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition concerns how American is taking care of its disabled veterans. An investigative report finds that the backlog of claims from newly returning veterans is worse than the veterans' administration is admitting. Using internal data not publicly released by the VA, the report finds that from the time a disability claim is accepted, many veterans are waiting longer than a year and a half to receive their checks. As a result, some veterans with disabilities say they have been forced to live in dire circumstances. Sometimes becoming homeless while waiting for their first check from the VA. My guests, reporter Aaron Glantz is with the California-based center for investigative reporting. Welcome to the program. GLANTZ: Good to be with you. CAVANAUGH: Jack Harkins is here, a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, chairman of the united veterans' council of San Diego. Thank you for being here. HARKINS: Thanks. CAVANAUGH: The VA already acknowledges there is a backlog in getting out disability payments what. New information does your investigation reveal? GLANTZ: Well, the VA does acknowledge the number of veterans waiting for benefits has increased from about 400,000 when President Obama was elected to 900,000. When he ran for president, Barack Obama said that that 400,000 number was unacceptable. What we find in these internal documents is that veterans -- those 900,000 veterans, a lot of them are waiting a lot longer than the VA has previously disclosed. So the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits was only about 10,000 when President Obama took office. Now it's up to 250,000. And in San Diego, the number is even more drama. When President Obama took office, there were only 100 veterans who had waited over a year for their benefits. Now the number is up to 7,600. CAVANAUGH: As we speak, I'm going to ask you to break down some of the reasons that you've found for why these wait times are increasing. But just so we get a sense of what this means in human term, can you tell us what your report found in terms of hardship for disabled veterans who are waiting so long for those checks? GLANTZ: Well, think about it this way. You come home from the war in Iraq or Afghanistan and you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you can't sleep at night. You have flashbacks during the day, you have a traumatic brain injury, which means you have physical brain damage and you have horrible migraines, memory loss, or maybe you're an older veteran who's got cancer from agent orange. So you come forward and say to the department of veterans' affairs I would like a monthly check for disability compensation because I'm having difficulty working because of this war-related disability. And obviously these individuals are coming forward for this disable check not because they want to get rich but because they're dealing with something that is making it difficult for them to hold a job. And I've encountered many times that it's during this wait time does which is getting longer and longer that we do see veterans becoming homeless. A lot of veterans that I talked to said they considered suicide, because not only is it so difficult to eek out an existence while you are dealing with your disabilities with no money but always because this decision that your disability is service-connected becomes a point of personal validation for people. You've been through this experience that your country sent you to, and the government is just not admitting that the war has caused you to sustain this injury. CAVANAUGH: Jack Harkins, what kind of support does your organization, the united veterans' council of San Diego, what kind of support do you offer to vets who are, one reason or another, just not being able to make ends meet? HARKINS: First of all, we make sure that the veterans who need to have their claim initiated for compensation get contacted to those recipients, the proper veterans' benefits. Our constantly e-mailings and newsletters makes this happen. And we also represent an advocacy for veterans at large and for individuals. And it's not unusual that we'll put a senior official of the VA directly in touch with one of our members who says they have this difficulty. And what we see in San Diego is that the number has grown so great. First of all because it was after about 2008, 2009 when the war that began in 2003 had had veterans start to be discharged in the large numbers that they were began to need to make claims. That was expectable, but the numbers went so high that was unusual. Simultaneously, we in San Diego were making as broad an outreach and a push to get all veterans to enroll for their benefits, the Vietnam era veteran and others who hadn't enrolled yet. That all added to the very large here in San Diego County who enroll. CAVANAUGH: You deal with veterans every day, jack. Do you notice more about vets talking about having to wait a long go time to get their benefits? HARKINS: We have a condition now where the veterans in the largest percentage of veterans than any era who are making applications for increased benefits because of our increase risk as a nation. Traumatic brain injury, traumatic stress are natural associations with service in Iraq and Afghanistan to an unusual degree, and those are being applied for in unprecedented numbers. In addition, the veterans who are now applying are being entered into the automated system that is online and is completely paperless, which is accelerating that. CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about that. But first we asked a representative from the veterans administration here in San Diego to come on the show. No one was available. We did receive a statement from the VA which reads in part "too many veterans are waiting too long for benefits. We recognize delays are unacceptable. That is why VA has a robust plan to build a paperless digital disability claim system as a lasting solution that will transform how we operate." Aaron I want to know what your investigation found out about how successful the VA has been in going paperless. GLANTZ: Yeah, this is something that's very troubling to me as somebody who's been involved in this issue for some time. For people who are not familiar with the VA claim system, if you're a veteran and you file a disability claim, it's still literally on paper. And if you walk into a VA office, you'll see stacks and stacks of paper in Manila file folders and envelopes. Sometimes a food thick with veterans' medical files and other information in them to the point where it's very difficult sometimes for the workers to locate the information they need to approve a benefit, thus compounding delays. And in fact the inspector general of VA recently found that their office in North Carolina had so much paperwork in it that it was literally compromising the structural integrity of the building. So President Obama came in and he said he was going to solve this problem by moving to this paperless system. What we found in our investigation is that despite over a half a billion dollars spent, 97% of claims across the country are still on paper. Most of the offices do not even have this system yet. In San Diego there is the computer system deployed at the office. But the data that the VA provided to us showed that only 2,000 of the 29,000 veterans who are currently waiting in San Diego have their claims in this digital system. CAVANAUGH: Now, what documents did you use for your story? How did you obtain them? These obviously are not publicly released VA documents. GLANTZ: As somebody who's been covering this issue for sometime, I found there are a lot of good people at the VA. But as an institution, it's very cagey and often fails to share important information with the media and members of Congress. And I've gotten very used to waiting six months or a year on freedom of information act requests that ultimately come back only half full. But in this case, a VA official who wanted me to see this information and was concerned that the public had not seen it just gave it to me, gave me all of this internal data. They confirmed the authenticity of the documents. They said, yes,s, under President Obama the average wait time for veterans in San Diego has increased from 102 days to 276 days. CAVANAUGH: Whatever members of Congress doing about this delay? They must be hearing a lot about it from their constituents. GLANTZ: I think the issue for many members of Congress is that they care, and they know that the president cares. The president made it easier for veterans to make claims for PTSD. The president made it easier for veterans to make claims related to agent orange. A lot more veterans are filing claims. But the problem is that the various efforts that the administration has done to improve the speed of this prosecuting have not worked. The computer system is not being deployed. They've talked about hiring 3,000 additional workers. It turns out in the documents that we got, it doesn't account for turnover. They've only added 3,000 worker, despite this huge influx of claims. So members of Congress are a little bit I think stumped about what to do. They gave the VA more money to process these claims but the VA has not launched the computer system with the money or hired additional people in large numbers. So what do you do? There's going to be a hearing tomorrow in the Senate on this. Politicians will beat their chests about what to do. But really it's up to the executive branch, to the president, to the secretary of veterans affairs and his deputies to make sure that the system works. CAVANAUGH: We asked for statements from our congressional delegation about this problem. This is the response we received from congresswoman Susan Davis, a ranking member on the house averages service committee. "My office has been deal width unacceptable lack of efficiency at the VA for years. The problem has only gotten worse as President Obama has been faced with thousands of new veterans after winding down the Bush wars. But no matter who's in the White House, the VA simply has to do a better job" jack Harkins when your organization comes upon a case of someone who has filed a disability claim and is encountering one of these very long wait times, is there anything that your group does to step in and help that serviceman actually not just file a claim but actually manage to live through that time while they're waiting to -- for the VA to send the check? HARKINS: Yes. A number of associations of veterans with the ongoing participation of the department of veterans' affairs itself does receive the call for assistance, or in our monitoring of members finds there's someone who does need some connection to community resources, come in San Diego County are plentiful. There are plenty of agencies offering fine things for veterans, between these spaces and the application times their benefits can be started. And 211 San Diego is a great resource. They have a dedicated veterans approach to that. So I applaud all of those activities. We're not satisfied. We continue to monitor and continue to ask the VA, how is it going, what is proceeding, what new information can we provide to veterans? And in fact the automated system is in place in San Diego. That is how claims are being processed. Eventually all the claims that are backlogged on paper will be brought into an automated system. And I know that Aaron is aware of that as well. But as this initial wave that must be dealt with of all these Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the great numbers they are, it's now the automated system which is in place here and is continuing to be rolled out throughout the VA that is going to enable them to meet that goal. CAVANAUGH: We got a further response from the VA. They went on to say that not only has it been the fact that so many veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are returning with severe more complex injuries, that's a quote from their response, but also because the first time medical conditions related to agent orange, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and gulf war illness have led to nearly a million new claims. And of course these from previous U.S. wars. Do you get the sense that perhaps the VA has taken on a bit too much -- more than it was able to fulfill? GLANTZ: Well, everything that they said in their statement is true. The VA is dealing with a large influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The VA is processing a lot of claims from Vietnam veterans who are filing for conditions related to agent orange for the first time. On the other hand by the time President Obama was elected, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not exactly a surprise. They had been going on for sometime 330,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had already filed for disability under president Bush. And yet president Bush was able to keep the wait times for veterans at a level which was much lower. As I mentioned, the average wait in the last year of the Bush presidency in San Diego was 102 days. Now it's up to 276. So I think that the VA had a plan to deal with this huge influx of disability claims. But they failed to execute it well. And it fell apart in the implementation. The other guest is right. The computer system is in San Diego. On the other hand, here we are four years into the effort of launching the computer system, and only a small percentage of veterans' cases are in it. So it doesn't mean that they're not trying to do the right thing. But it's going off at a speed which is so slow that a lot of veterans are suffering. CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there, gentlemen.

VA's Ability To Quickly Provide Benefits Plummets Under Obama
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.

US Dept of Veterans Affairs Statement
Statement from VA
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.
Statement from Congresswoman Susan Davis
Statement from US Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-53)
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

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

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 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.

VA Misleads- files

In August, the VA’s inspector general said the weight of paper files at the agency’s Winston-Salem, N.C., office had compromised the structural integrity of the building.

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

VA Misleads- meeting

Members of California’s congressional delegation, including Rep. Mike Thompson ( third from right) meet with VA officials Feb. 27 about conditions at the agency’s Oakland office.

“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 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 those in New York; Chicago; Los Angeles; Waco, Texas; and Oakland, Calif. – 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.

Corrected: October 1, 2022 at 7:28 AM PDT
Maureen Cavanaugh, Patty Lane and Alison St John contributed to this report
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