The veterans’ benefits backlog story gets front-page treatment

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

A front-page story in The New York Times late last week took a close look at the massive backlog of veterans’ disability claims (which we’ve examined here, here, here and here). Correspondent James Dao provides profiles of veterans who are waiting to hear from the Department of Veterans Affairs — and adds critical context for the backlog:

“Numbers tell the story. Last year, veterans filed more than 1.3 million claims, double the number in 2001. Despite having added nearly 4,000 new workers since 2008, the agency did not keep pace, completing less than 80 percent of its inventory.

“This year, the agency has already completed more than one million claims for the third consecutive year. Yet it is still taking about eight months to process the average claim, two months longer than a decade ago.

“…Skyrocketing costs have accompanied that flood of claims. By next year, the department’s major benefit programs — compensation for the disabled, pensions for the low-income and educational assistance — are projected to cost about $76 billion, triple the amount in 2001. By 2022, those costs are projected to rise nearly 70 percent to about $130 billion.

“…Thanks to superior battlefield medicine and armor, those Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have survived combat at a higher rate. As they return home with more wounds, and perhaps more savvy, the ones who file for disability compensation are claiming on average nearly 10 disorders or injuries each, compared with 6 for Vietnam veterans and fewer than 4 for World War II veterans. Their complex claims are often more time-consuming to process, adding to the backlog.

“At the same time, a higher percentage — nearly half — of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are filing for disability compensation, partly because of the weak economy. That is double the rate for previous wars.”

Also giving the front-page treatment to the claims backlog is, whose reporting for its Sunday feature, “Hundreds of thousands of war vets still waiting for health benefits,” doesn’t move the story forward much, but focuses on the struggles of Army veteran Mike Rioux, keeping the focus on the human stories behind the numbers:

“His ears still ring from the explosions. He suffers from vertigo, headaches, insomnia and nightmares. He has terrible anxiety, evident in an interview with CNN — Rioux could hardly sit still, and his memory loss and inability to concentrate meant questions had to be repeated at times.

“‘I need to discover who I am again,’ he said.

“As a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, Rioux most recently was deployed in 2010 to one of the most dangerous spots in Afghanistan. There he survived firefights and blasts and witnessed much carnage in Paktia province, near the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border.

“After returning home, Rioux faced a much different battle, one that neither he nor his wife, Maggie, expected.”

For more, read our story on delays in the veterans’ benefits claims process, inspired by the work of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which produced a map showing claims processing statistics nationwide. I’ve written up a guide for reporters interested in localizing the coverage.

>> Help us cover this story: What’s your experience with veteran disability claims?