VA boasted that it managed to process more than 1 million benefits claims in 2012, and in the past few months, the number of pending claims has dropped a few percentage points in total even as the more complicated cases aging over 125 days has shot up.
If the VA’s new strategy meets its goal, Mr. Obama’s pledge could be fulfilled by the final year of his second term. But those on the front lines see many more obstacles, including a bureaucratic mindset that complicates even the simplest cases.
“There’s a bureaucracy that goes on inside the VA that just clogs the system,” said Mr. Tafe, who recalled a case with which he tried to help this summer, involving the widow of a veteran who died of a certified service-related illness.
He said the VA held up the elderly woman’s payments for seven months until she could prove she had not remarried in the weeks after her husband of 53 years passed away.
“It’s insulting that that’s the type of bureaucracy we’re dealing in,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking for me to tell widows we can’t give you any money because you’re stuck in a bureaucracy like this.”
Mr. Tafe said the VA has added some processing employees, but not enough to meet the crush of claims, and the new workers “can’t learn a complicated system in just a year.”
As it has for years, the VA claims it doesn’t have enough money to meet its growing demands.
But the Washington Guardian over the past three months has highlighted numerous instances in which VA employees wasted money, including $6 million on two training conferences in the vacation hot spot of Orlando, Fla., where workers enjoyed limo and helicopter rides and upgraded hotel rooms. In another case, more than $5 million was spent on security software that ultimately was never installed and collected dust on shelves.
Meanwhile, a recent investigation found that veterans at one clinic in Memphis, Tenn., waited an average of nine hours to see a doctor when they sought emergency care.
Even if processing speeds improve, the VA has the additional challenge of stopping errors. And veterans going through the process feel stuck in limbo; in some cases, already well past the one-year-mark on pending cases.
One veteran, who spoke to the Washington Guardian only on the condition of anonymity because he still works for the government, described the 28-month odyssey he has endured.
“I submitted my VA claim July 2010, and it still has not been completed. The VA estimates the claim to complete between January and June 2013,” he said.
The veterans caught in the worst predicament are those whose service falls between the Vietnam veterans — whose new Agent Orange claims are targeted for priority completion within two years — and the very newest veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, whose claims for disability often can exceed a dozen conditions that need to be validated and go to the head of the line because of the pressing needs.
“I can understand the need to complete claims of veterans who served in Vietnam 40+ years ago. I also can understand that troops on active duty in the board process have ‘head of the line’ privileges, so to speak,” the one veteran stuck for 28 months said. “But, the cost is that all other veterans are put on the back burner with a huge unknown as to when their rating will be completed.”