Army reservist Joseph Blunn came back from his first deployment to Iraq in 2004 a lost man, plagued by nightmares, frayed nerves and bouts of inexplicable anger. He tried to readjust to life at home, but couldn’t — and two years after his return, Blunn found himself sitting alone on the floor of his bedroom, playing a solo game of Russian roulette with his revolver. He called the police and asked them to take him away.
Counselors at Blunn’s local Veterans Affairs office diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. His PTSD can be crushing: At times, Blunn is leveled by guilt or sadness; loud noises send him reeling. Working and studying are difficult, and in May of this year — after a second tour in Iraq — he filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Denver asking for disability benefits. He hasn’t heard anything since.
“I’m in the dark,” he says. “I just have no idea when I’m going to hear anything.”
Like Blunn, American troops are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan only to wait in line. They’re joining a growing queue of veterans seeking compensation — payments and other support — from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-related disabilities.
Across the country, local VA offices are having a tough time processing the backlog of more than 800,000 disability claims.
In the meantime, veterans wait. It can take months — sometimes more than a year — to find out how much, if at all, they’ll be compensated for health issues related to their service.
Most veterans filing those disability claims wait an average of 257 days, according to a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). The wait varies widely from state to state, making a veteran’s ability to secure critical assistance seem almost random. In the fastest offices, like in St. Paul, Minn., they can expect to receive word on their claims in just over 100 days. But travel to VA regional offices in New York, Indianapolis and Waco, Texas, and the wait can stretch to a year or more.
The Public Insight Network is working with CIR to look into why it’s taking so many veterans so long to get their benefits. We’ve been asking current and former members of the military to tell us about their experiences navigating the VA benefits system.
For most of the veterans we heard from, the process has been frustrating, confusing and opaque. Joe Romeo, who served in Iraq as a corporal in the Marines in 2004, waited a year to receive disability benefits. He called the claims process “mind-numbing … a nightmare of paperwork, redundant conversations, and brushoffs.” Other veterans talked of submitting reams of paperwork to the VA and waiting months without receiving a ruling — or even a response.
Jacob Davis, a former Army specialist who lives in San Francisco, filed a benefits claim for PTSD in 2011 after becoming homeless and suicidal. Today, he says he’s trying to get his life back on track. But he feels he’s in limbo. “My claim has been in the decision phase for months,” he says. “I have called the VA, I have talked to my case worker, and I have done everything in my power to expedite the process. Now all I can do is wait and hope my life does not fall apart before I get paid.”
Rich Rudnick is with the National Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit that helps veterans and their families navigate the VA system. “Getting an answer from the VA about what is going on with a claim is one of the hardest things to do,” he says. “We get calls from somebody who says: ‘You know, I haven’t heard from them for four months, I haven’t heard from them for eight months. What is going on?’”
For the past three years, the VA’s Office of the Inspector General has been conducting reviews of the nation’s 57 regional offices. In the inspection reports, patterns emerge. Phrases like “inaccuracies in processing,” “incorrectly interpreted policy” and “use of inadequate medical examinations” show up over and over again. All of those things contribute to the delays.
In Roanoke, Va., for example, inspectors found paper files — some of them active claims — stacked by the thousands on top of already-full filing cabinets. A structural engineer reported that the sheer weight of it all actually put the building in danger.
In Indianapolis, the OIG found more than 1,200 pieces of claims-related mail sitting in the mailroom, waiting to be matched with veterans’ files. In other regional offices, mail was mis-stamped, misfiled — sometimes just lost. Two-thirds of the regional offices visited failed the mailroom inspection.
Processing errors don’t just contribute to delays; they can sometimes affect the accuracy of the VA’s ruling on a claim. In its review of claims, the inspector general’s office found many examples in which the VA had over-paid veterans. In fact, the office estimates that about $1 billion has been paid out in the past decade because of decisions made without adequate medical evidence. The VA is projected to overpay about the same amount over the next five years if changes aren’t made.
The inspector general’s reports also provide a window into the frustrations of overwhelmed VA employees who struggle to prioritize their many critical responsibilities. The findings point to inadequate supervision and failures of management.
“This is a big agency and there are a lot of rules — a lot of different types of claims, and each claim has their own unique rules,” says Brent Arronte, who heads two of the inspector general’s inspection teams. “What we see predominantly is supervisors that do not perform effective oversight of their work processes.”
The VA declined an interview on the subject, but in prepared remarks, spokesman Craig Larson called the delays “unacceptable,” and said a new computer system, designed specifically to “deliver faster, better decisions,” is scheduled to be installed in all VA regional offices by the end of 2013.
Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has said he wants to see processing of all claims completed within 125 days by the end of 2015. The national average, according to the inspector general’s reports, is twice that, and new claims are filed every day. The agency expects 1 million active duty personnel to enter the VA system within the next five years.
Meanwhile Jacob Davis, the Iraq war veteran waiting on his PTSD claim in San Francisco, is left with few options. So, like many others, he watches the mail.
“It’s hard when basically my life’s on hold waiting for this money so I can continue to move forward,” says Davis. “I kind of feel like I joined the Army, I served my country, I worked really hard, did my job well. Then I get out and there isn’t any help for me out here. I feel like they paid me with an IOU. I’m basically sitting, waiting, and wishing for something that doesn’t look like it will come through anytime soon.”