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    What's the story?

    Is the Department of Veterans Affairs making mistakes on war-related disability claims at a higher rate than previously acknowledged? The Center for Investigative Reporting reviewed a year's worth of VA inspector general's audits and found an error rate of 38 percent in a sample of 1,200 high-profile claims. The VA, which acknowledges it makes mistakes on 14 percent of disability claims, says the targeted audits are not an accurate representation of the agency as a whole. But veterans' appeals clog the system, lengthening the delays for all veterans. Nationwide, the average wait time for an answer on a claim is 260 days, two months longer than a year ago.

    Who is accountable?

    • The Department of Veterans Affairs is the federal agency responsible for ensuring the care of veterans and their families. It is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and its 58 regional offices nationwide administer a variety of benefits, from home loan guaranty and the GI Bill to disability and health care benefits.
    • The VA's Office of Inspector General provides oversight and conducts audits and evaluations of the performance of the regional offices. See performance evaluations for some of the 58 regional offices.
    • The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs is the congressional authorizing body for the VA. It makes recommendations for legislation to expand, reduce or fine-tunes laws related to veterans' benefits. Additionally, the committee has oversight responsibility for the VA, ensuring the agency functions properly. The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs is charged with managing the status of the VA's disability claims within the regional offices. See the full committee's membership and contact information.
    • The House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform is the watchdog agency for the U.S. government. It ensures tax dollars are spent appropriately and holds the federal government accountable to taxpayers. In July, the committee held a hearing to address the steps taken by the VA to eliminate the disability claims backlog. Click here to see the committee's membership and contact information. For testimony and reports from the July hearing, click here.

    Who can help disabled veterans navigate the claims system?

    • Founded in 1920, Disabled American Veterans has a membership of 1.2 million nationwide and advocates for more than 200,000 disabled veterans each year. The organization is headquartered in Kentucky, with national service offices in all 50 states to help veterans push their claims through the system. To find local chapters, click here. You can also contact the National Service Office nearest you.
    • Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is the largest and oldest advocacy group for veterans of the war on terror. Membership is free, and more than 200,000 veterans of these wars have joined the organization.
    • The Wounded Warrior Project runs programs and events to help support disabled veterans returning from combat. It provides benefits assistance, social programs and training to help veterans adjust and re-enter their communities with ease and dignity. To contact the Wounded Warrior Project for help with your claim, click here.
    • Additionally, the VA offers this searchable database of accredited attorneys, claims agents and veterans service organizations representatives.

    Listen on the California Report:


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    The Department of Veterans Affairs wouldn't talk to the Center for Investigative Reporting about why Jamie Fox lost her job.

    But in a sworn deposition, Assistant U.S. Attorney Victoria Carradero grilled Fox about our investigation, asking her about the time and place of our interview with her and the questions we asked.

     

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  • 11/08/12--23:00: Video: Errors at the VA
  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs denied Navy veteran Hosea Roundtree’s disability benefits claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, saying it could find no evidence that he was in combat. When a VA claims processor tried to intervene, she says she was forced out. Veterans’ advocates say Roundtree’s case illustrates the VA’s priorities: productivity over accuracy.

     
    TRANSCRIPT:

    Hosea Roundtree: I knew it. I knew it. I knew I should have been awarded that claim. I knew I should have gotten that claim approved. I knew it.

    Reporter Aaron Glantz: In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied Hosea Roundtree’s disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

    Roundtree: What do you got to do? Go get shot before you get PTSD? There’s more than one way of getting wounded. I was mentally wounded. I was mentally wounded.

    Reporter: The VA didn’t deny Roundtree had PTSD. But the agency said it couldn’t find any evidence he was in combat.

    Jamie Fox: I just did a quick Google search on military history sites, and I was able to verify that his ship that he was on was actually in combat.

    Reporter: Jamie Fox was a claims processor at the VA’s Oakland office. She discovered Roundtree was on a Navy destroyer in 1983 that engaged in battle off the coast of Beirut.

    Fox: I brought it to the attention of the supervisor because I was new.

    Reporter: Fox never saw Roundtree’s file again. Five months later, she was forced out.

    Fox: It was devastating. I was in shock. I was confused.

    Reporter: Fox filed a wrongful termination suit against the VA. The agency declined several requests to discuss her case. But in Fox’s termination letter, the VA said she failed to follow instructions by not sending Roundtree a letter denying his claim. And in a deposition, the former director of the VA’S Oakland office, Lynn Flint, said it didn’t matter if the agency’s decision in Roundtree’s case was “right or wrong.”

    Gordon Erspamer: They’re not interested in quality. They are interested in production and getting the decisions done, regardless of whether they are right or wrong.

    Reporter: Attorney Gordon Erspamer has successfully sued the VA on behalf of veterans. He doesn’t represent Roundtree or Fox, but he’s not surprised by what happened to them.

    Erspamer: The system is simply broke, and we can do a lot better for our veterans.

    Reporter: The VA says its error rate on disability claims is 14 percent.

    This year, the VA’s inspector general published reports on how the agency handled more than 1,300 high-profile claims, including those for traumatic brain injury.The inspector general found inaccuracies in 515 claims – an error rate of 38 percent, according to a Center for Investigative Reporting analysis.

    In a statement, the VA says those findings “do not present a true picture of the overall quality of the work.”

    Reporter: Erspamer says errors are often the result of a well-known practice at the VA.

    Erspamer: There’s a practice called topsheeting, a very famous term at the VA. And that is basically you take a look at the file, you look at the top pages of the file and you write a decision.

    Reporter: The VA says it is “retooling procedures and deploying paperless data systems” to limit mistakes. The VA promises to reduce its error rate to 2 percent by 2015.

    U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier: I want to see dramatic changes taking place now.

    Reporter: Congresswoman Jackie Speier says errors are contributing to the VA’s huge backlog of disability claims.

    Speier: There is no benefit in pushing a determination out that is wrong because, in the end, it will be appealed, and it, it's going to make the record look even worse.

    Reporter: Appeals represent 31 percent of the agency’s 819,000 pending disability claims. By the time Hosea Roundtree filed his first claim, he had spent 17 years in the Navy. And more than a decade on the streets, addicted to drugs.

    Roundtree: I lost it. I had a major breakdown. I’m being honest with you. I had a major breakdown.

    Reporter: The same day he received his denial letter, Roundtree got a job offer from the VA’s health care division. He now works as a cook at the agency’s medical center in Sacramento. Jamie Fox now works for the same division of the VA that hired Roundtree, assisting veterans at a clinic in Santa Rosa. Her lawsuit is still pending. This spring she found Roundtree on Facebook.

    Fox: I was so nervous calling. I didn’t know how he was going to respond.

    Reporter: She heard what happened to his claim. And he heard what happened to her job.

    Roundtree: I felt her pain.  I felt her anger.  I felt everything about her, because she and I connected.

    Reporter: A few weeks later, they met. And Fox persuaded him to file a new disability claim.

    Roundtree: It’s not just for me. It’s for me and every other vet that’s out there that’s suffering. It’s for every other vet that’s coming home so that they can see a difference. I want these vets coming back from overseas to get fair, better treatment.

     

    Reporter: Aaron Glantz
    Videographer: Adithya Sambamurthy
    Edited by: Adithya Sambamurthy and Sharon Pieczenik
    Senior digital editor and graphics: David Ritsher
    Senior producer: Stephen Talbot
    Executive producer for CIR: Sharon Tiller
    Partner organizations: KXTV, KGO, KABC and KGTV


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    Video: Adithya Sambamurthy  |  Read full transcript

    U.S. Navy cook Hosea Roundtree watched the 1983 shelling of Beirut from the deck of a ship, feelings of helplessness washing over him as people perished onshore. That memory haunted him, resurrected in flashbacks eight years later after a tour in the Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.

    But when Roundtree’s claim for disability compensation crossed Jamie Fox’s desk at the Department of Veterans Affairs more than two decades later, it was slated for denial on the grounds that he had never seen combat. Fox, herself a Navy veteran, tried to straighten things out – and for that, she lost her job.

    A lawsuit filed by the former VA disability claims representative provides a rare glimpse into what veterans’ advocates call systemic problems in how the agency handles compensation claims filed by Americans wounded physically or mentally in the line of duty.

    A Center for Investigative Reporting review of the VA’s performance data reveals chronic errors – committed in up to 1 in 3 cases – and an emphasis on speed over accuracy that clogs the VA system with appeals, increasing delays for all veterans.

    “When the VA makes a mistake processing a veteran’s claim, then our veterans face another unacceptably long wait,” 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. “These veterans, many of whom are unemployable due to disabilities, often lose their homes and are unable to put food on the table for themselves and their families.”

    As of mid-October, appeals represented nearly a third of the more than 819,000 pending disability claims. Nationwide over the past year, the average time a veteran waits for a decision has increased by more than two months – to 260 days. Veterans who appeal wait an average of 3½ years, according to VA performance data obtained by CIR through the Freedom of Information Act. 

    In a deposition related to a federal discrimination complaint filed by Fox, the head of the Oakland VA regional office where Fox worked, Lynn Flint, said “it didn’t matter if the decision (to deny Roundtree’s claim) was right or wrong.” In proceedings related to Fox’s wrongful termination suit, Flint and Fox’s supervisor, Kim Yarbrough, argued that Fox exceeded her authority by advocating for additional review of Roundtree’s case, lowering her productivity to unacceptable levels.

    Veterans errors 2
    Jamie Fox lost her job at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Oakland office in 2008 after she wrote a memo to her boss arguing that Hosea Roundtree’s disability benefits were being denied wrongfully.

    Credit: Michael Short/Center for Investigative Reporting

    If Roundtree disagreed with the denial, Yarbrough said, he could always appeal.

    The VA declined to comment further on Fox’s dismissal, citing the ongoing litigation.

    Across the country, the VA’s inability to stem a tide of errors has increasingly frustrated lawmakers from both political parties, who frequently hear from distraught constituents challenging their denials.

    The Board of Veterans’ Appeals found errors by VA staff in 35,000 of the nearly 50,000 appeals decided in 2011, according to the board’s annual report [PDF]. In 29 percent of cases, the board overturned the agency’s initial decision and ruled in favor of the veteran. In 44 percent, the board said VA staff committed an error and sent the cases back to the agency’s regional office for additional review.

    “There is no benefit in pushing a determination out that is wrong because, in the end, it will be appealed, and it’s going to make the record look even worse,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat working to reform the VA’s Oakland office.

    The VA acknowledges it makes mistakes on 14 percent of disability claims – an error rate the agency considers unacceptable and has pledged to all but eliminate by 2015.

    A CIR analysis of 18 audits published this year by the VA’s inspector general shows the problem could be much worse, especially in high-profile cases. The analysis found a 38 percent average error rate for claims involving disabilities like traumatic brain injury and illnesses linked to the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.

    In June, Linda Halliday, the agency’s assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, told a House committee [PDF] that 19 of the 20 regional offices inspected in 2011 failed to follow department policy for claims related to traumatic brain injury, one of the signature injuries of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

    VA officials say the inspector general’s reports “do not present a true picture of the overall quality of the work performed” by VA employees. The Office of Inspector General, the agency said in a statement, “samples specific types of claims, and its results do not represent the university of disability claims processed at a Regional Office.”

    VA employee Fox was forced out in 2008, after she told her supervisor that the agency was poised to wrongfully deny benefits to Roundtree, a 17-year Navy veteran who claimed to have developed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The VA said it could find no evidence that Roundtree had experienced combat in Beirut, but through an Internet search Fox confirmed his ship, the USS Arthur W. Radford, had engaged in battle.

    “It was a gut-wrenching story when I went through his file,” Fox said.

    Roundtree, she said, had “been a star in the Navy” but ended up homeless on the streets of Long Beach after a mental breakdown. Years of drug abuse left him estranged from his wife and daughters.

    Fox wrote a four-page memo to her supervisor arguing that the VA should “wait to send out the award of denial” to allow further research. Five months later, the VA gave her a choice: Resign or be fired. She opted to resign to keep her federal employment record clean.

    In Fox’s termination letter, the head of the Oakland office, Flint, criticized Fox for “failure to follow instructions” and “misuse of time” for not immediately sending Roundtree a letter denying his benefits.

    Two years earlier, when Roundtree filed his claim, he was living in a transitional housing program for homeless veterans on the VA’s hospital complex in West Los Angeles. The former petty officer 1st class had been in and out of jail and lived on the streets for more than a decade following his tour in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.

    Roundtree, now 54, blames his service in the Gulf for triggering intense flashbacks of the shelling of Beirut. He received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1989, but received a bad-conduct discharge for drug use after re-enlisting and serving in the Gulf. Roundtree says he began using crack cocaine after leaving the military.

    “I lost it. I had a major breakdown,” he said.

    In 1993, he walked out on his wife and two daughters and buried himself in crack to blot out the intrusive thoughts of carnage along the Lebanese shore. “I couldn’t shut my mind down,” he said.

    When he finally received a denial letter from the VA in 2008, he said its words came as a shock. It cited insufficient evidence “to confirm that you actually engaged in combat.”

    Veterans errors 4
    Hosea Roundtree (center) stands aboard the USS Arthur W. Radford in an old photo. He was on the Navy destroyer in 1983 during the shelling of Beirut. When Roundtree filed a disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression more than two decades later, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied his claim, saying it could find no evidence that he had engaged in combat.

    Credit: Courtesy of Hosea Roundtree

    Today, Roundtree calls Fox “an angel” for catching an apparent error that might have cost him thousands of dollars in compensation for his war wounds, and he expresses outrage that she was forced out for speaking up on his behalf. 

    “We need people like Jamie to be in the office to help us,” he said. “Not just for me – for me and every other vet that’s out there that’s suffering.”

    Productivity is priority

    Four years after Fox left her job, she and the VA continue to battle in court. Government lawyers argue that it does not matter whether VA employees wrongly deny claims. What is important, officials said, is to be highly productive – as measured by the number of cases employees clear from the inventory.

    Under questioning from Administrative Law Judge Virginia Mellema MaGee in 2010, Fox’s supervisor, Yarbrough, said Fox should have immediately sent Roundtree a letter denying his claim despite her concerns because “it was a very old case.”

    Instead of writing a memo questioning the denial’s accuracy, Yarbrough said Fox should have spent no more than half an hour preparing and sending that denial letter.

    “What should have occurred was the end product,” Yarbrough said. Roundtree’s claim “should have been just cleared in the system” – the file sent to a storage facility in suburban San Bruno.

    Gordon Erspamer, a senior counsel based in San Francisco at the law firm Morrison & Foerster who has practiced veterans law for more than three decades, said the agency likely violated the Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000 in Roundtree’s case.

    “The courts have held that the VA has a duty to assist the veteran in developing the facts and evidence to support his or her claim,” Erspamer said.

    One internal VA document, made public in a federal class-action lawsuit brought by Erspamer’s firm, shows that during the first three months of 2008 – around the time Fox was urging the VA to take another look at Roundtree’s claim – the agency failed to perform its duty to assist in nearly 11,000 cases.

    Meeting face to face

    After Fox lost her job, she went on unemployment and moved in with her sister. Two years later, she found a new job – working at a VA health care center in Santa Rosa, where she earns about the same salary as before she lost her job.

    Six months ago, she found Roundtree on Facebook.

    Veterans errors 6
    Navy veteran Hosea Roundtree, 54, at his home in Yuba City, says he suffers from flashbacks of the shelling he witnessed in Beirut while aboard a U.S. Navy ship in 1983.

    Credit: Michael Short/Center for Investigative Reporting

    “I was so nervous calling. I didn’t know how he was going to respond,” she said.

    What she hoped to hear was that his claim had been approved, she said, “or if it wasn’t approved that he would have appealed it.”

    But Roundtree had never filed an appeal. The day he received his denial letter, he coincidentally received a job offer – also from the VA. Roundtree now works as a cook at the VA Medical Center in Sacramento.

    In June, Fox and Roundtree met for the first time. Because the time limit for Roundtree to appeal his denial had passed, Fox helped him file a new disability claim.

    “It’s not just for me. It’s for me and every other vet that’s out there that’s suffering,” Roundtree said of reopening his case. “I want these vets coming back from overseas to get fair, better treatment.”

    Five months later – and six years after he first sought compensation for the mental wounds he received in uniform – Roundtree is still waiting.

    This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.


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    Wait 1
    Army veteran Michael Grabski and his wife, Sandra, search real estate websites in their Napa apartment. The Department of Veterans Affairs expedited Grabski’s 2-year-old claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and a knee injury after his case received media attention.

    Credit: Michael Short/Center for Investigative Reporting

    Under fire for its growing backlog of disability benefits claims, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last July set itself a goal: By year’s end, 40 percent of veterans would wait no more than four months for an answer on compensation claims for conditions as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

    Instead, things got worse. A Center for Investigative Reporting analysis shows the ranks of veterans facing long waits increased by 18,000 since July 11, when the agency’s undersecretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, told reporters that the delays were unacceptable and pledged that the backlog would begin to shrink “right now.”

    By early January, the total number of veterans waiting for all claims had dipped slightly but remained above 900,000, with 630,000 – 70 percent – waiting longer than four months.

    Informed of the missed deadline, VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld amended the goal: The agency, he said in an email, now expects to turn the corner in 2014.

    Yet two initiatives to reduce the logjam have failed to produce results so far, according to a CIR analysis of VA data. Four years after it was widely touted, a $537 million computer system has successfully processed 75 claims. And an effort to offload claims from the busiest offices has overloaded offices that previously had been performing well.

    Veterans groups are outraged and argue it is time for President Barack Obama to step in.

    “Who is being held accountable? Who’s being fired? What change is being made?” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We’ve been patient for a long time and to hear, ‘Be patient for a while longer’ when you’re a disabled veteran is ridiculous.”

    There are a few bright spots. In Northern California, where a report by The Bay Citizen – now part of the Center for Investigative Reporting – touched off congressional outrage, nearly 5,000 fewer veterans have been waiting for more than four months. The VA’s Oakland office closed in June while its staff was retrained. 

    Fewer veterans also are waiting in other areas where media outlets picked up CIR’s coverage, including Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Waco, Texas.

    Many factors no doubt play a role. In an interview, Diana Rubens, the VA’s deputy undersecretary for field operations, agreed that offices in those areas had received extra attention from Washington, but said she wasn’t sure if it was the result of media scrutiny.

    “Coincidence?” she said. “I don’t know.”

    On an anecdotal basis, however, shining the spotlight on individual claimsmade a difference. Veterans featured in The Bay Citizen’s stories about wait times typically received benefits shortly after a reporter contacted the VA about them.

    • The VA approved a pension benefits claim from World War II veteran James Alderson on Dec. 12, the day after CIR asked the agency about his case for a story about veterans who died while awaiting an answer. A week later, the agency sent a $6,057 retroactive benefit check to his widow.
    • Navy medic Rachael Hairston received a call from the VA saying her claim had been approved Jan. 15, a day after CIR asked about her post-traumatic stress disorder claim while reporting this story. The Iraq veteran and her toddler had become homeless while she waited for two years. That same day, the VA transferred $39,075 in back pay to her bank account.
    • The same week Army veteran Michael Grabski was featured in a story on delays at the Oakland office, the veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan received a call from a VA official who expedited his 2-year-old claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and a knee injury sustained during a patrol in Afghanistan. Grabski subsequently received two retroactive benefits checks totaling $45,000.

    vets dying 2
    Kale Alderson at the grave of his father, World War II veteran James Alderson, at Glen Oaks Memorial Park in Chico. James Alderson died in September, but the VA didn’t grant his pension benefits until three months later.

    Credit: Michael Short/The Bay Citizen

    “It was a game changer,” he said of the story. After receiving his benefits, Grabski proposed to his longtime girlfriend and used a portion of the money to pay for their wedding at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco.

    Now, the couple is house hunting in Napa. Grabski’s $1,628 monthly disability check, coupled with his wife’s salary as a warehouse manager, provides enough regular income for the couple to qualify for a home loan.

    “After waiting so long, I feel like the next phase of my life has begun,” Grabski said.

    Rubens acknowledged that the agency gave special attention to individual veterans whose problems were exposed in the media.

    “It’s an unfortunate way that things have had to get done recently,” she said. In the future, she added, the VA aspires to process claims quickly “so you don’t have to make that phone call.”

    Positive outcomes are the exception, however, not the rule. Between July and December, the average delay veterans across the nation faced increased by two weeks, to 273 days.

    Despite shrinking backlogs in California, veterans there waited about five months longer by December than they had in July. Veterans filing claims with the Los Angeles office now face the longest delays in the nation – nearly 17 months on average –while Northern California veterans filing in Oakland wait an average of 14 months. More than 80 percent of veterans in both parts of the state wait more than four months. In San Diego, veterans wait an average of about 11 months for a decision, with 68 percent facing delays the VA considers unacceptable.

    Wait times vary dramatically across the country, offering the VA the potential to shuffle the deck a bit. Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that in the fiscal year that ended in September, the VA transferred nearly 47,000 claims, including 1,800 mailed out of Oakland in the months following CIR’s coverage of problems at that office.

    Based on the VA’s numbers, most of the offices experiencing a decline in inventory have been sending claims out, while those where the backlog is increasing have been receiving large numbers of those shifted claims.

    At the Muskogee, Okla., regional office, which has received the bulk of claims transferred by Oakland, the number of veterans waiting more than four months  increased by about 4,500. Previously, the Oklahoma office was processing claims faster than it received them.

    “It’s like Whac-A-Mole,”said Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and former senior VA project manager who now works at the Washington, D.C.-area law firm Bergmann & Moore. “All the VA is trying to do is hide the problem instead of solving it.”

    The transfers are about fairness, Rubens said. For a veteran, “it shouldn’t matter if I live in State A or State X, I should be getting the same treatment across the country.”

    Even more claims are being transferred than the official tally, she added, because the agency frequently mails a claim from one office to another without first entering it into the computer system that tracks transfers.

    For VA workers, all this shuffling is “demoralizing,” said Ron Robinson, an Army veteran who has worked for the past 16 years at the agency’s South Carolina office. That office shipped out 3,000 claims last year, yet still saw its backlog grow.

    Robinson said a single veteran’s claim frequently is mailed back and forth between offices multiple times to clear up questions and inconsistencies. The extra transfers increase the chance that a claim will be lost, he said, and can alarm veterans who are not only unable to figure out how close they are to receiving their benefits, but even who is handling their claim. 

    “There is no sense of urgency,” said Sheryl Cornelius, 58, who lost her home to foreclosure while she waited a year for the agency to rule that her husband’s suicide was related to his service during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. On July 8, 2009, after a long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Jack Cornelius shot himself in the head in their Hinton, Okla., home.

    “How many thousands of men have been buried with no questions asked or demanded from the VA?” she asked. “It makes me sick to think about.”

    Criticism of the VA also is coming from official circles. In mid-January, the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the agency lacked “sound planning” and had no comprehensive plan to reduce the backlog.

    In its written response to the audit, John Gingrich, the VA’s chief of staff, said the agency generally agrees with the GAO’s conclusions but argued that a series of reforms, including computerization of the claims process, called the Veterans Benefits Management System, will allow the agency to decide nearly all veterans’ compensation claims within four months by 2015. 

    Yet four years after the VA pledged the technology upgrade, computer systems have been deployed at 18 of the 58 regional offices. Even at the offices that have received computers, more than 90 percent of disability claims remain on paper. Of the 24,588 claims entered into the system between October and January, 75 had been completed by year’s end.

    At the first four offices to pilot the system – Salt Lake City; Providence, R.I.; Fort Harrison, Mont.; and Wichita, Kan. – CIR found the number of veterans waiting more than four months has grown since the VA undersecretary’s July press conference.  

    On Monday, the VA’s independent inspector general released a report stating that the computer system, which so far has cost taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars, still had not been adequately tested and could not fully perform the seven key tasks that claims processors must perform to get veterans their benefits.

    Rubens said that “the usability” of the computer system was improved during a series of tweaks in 2012 and that its use, and effectiveness, is poised to take off during the coming year.

    But in Washington, observers are increasingly skeptical.

    “All I see are promises,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney of California, formerly the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees the VA’s disability claims bureaucracy.

    When he and other members of Congress ask questions, McNerney said, they get answers “that don’t quite square with reality.”

    This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.


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    The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks and widely reports the average wait time for benefits: 273 days. But internal data indicate that veterans filing their first claim, including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wait nearly two months longer.

    Infographic - Veterans waiting longer

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    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.

    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.

    Credit: Office of the Inspector General/Department of Veterans Affairs

    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.

    Credit: Courtesy of the Office of Rep. Mike Thompson

    “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.