The Department of Veterans Affairs is failing to keep up with a torrent of benefits claims, and the backlog leaves many service members high and dry for well over a year after first filing their forms, a new report from the Center for Investigative Reporting finds.
From the CIR report:
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.
And the VA is predicting that the situation will get worse, as the number of veterans waiting on the department to process their claims is expected to surge past the current 900,000 and toward a million by the end of March. A spokesman for the VA told the CIR that the department is being inundated by a nearly 50-percent increase in the number of filed claims. He said the growth was due to a combination of increasing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning home, broadening claims for PTSD and Gulf War illness, and new guidelines allowing Vietnam vets to request compensation for complications due to exposure to Agent Orange.
The department is also being crushed, quite literally, under claims filed on paper. The CIR reports that 97 percent of all veterans’ claims are submitted on paper, a trend that recently led the VA to warn that the weight of the files and cabinets had compromised the structural integrity of one of its office buildings in North Carolina.
Veterans groups have called on President Barack Obama, who has frequently touted his record on veterans issues, to address the failure of the VA under his watch.
“If this report is true, it reveals a total betrayal of trust for America’s veterans. IAVA calls on the president to respond to this report immediately. Enough is enough," Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans Association CEO and Founder Paul Rieckhoff said in a statement. "Disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans should not have to wait until 2015 to receive the financial and health support they depend on. We call on the president to establish a presidential commission to end the VA backlog now. This backlog is a national embarrassment -- it’s time to end it once and for all.”
The VA acknowledged that its performance was lagging in a recent hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
"Too many veterans still have to wait too long to get the compensation benefits they earn, and that is unacceptable to us," VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said, according to CNN.
But others are calling for more immediate action. In a column in Time Magazine, Joe Klein argued that it was time for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to "step down."