It was one of the simplest, most poignant promises Barack Obama made in 2008 in his first campaign for the White House: He would fulfill "a sacred trust with our veterans" by significantly reducing the government's lengthy backlog of pending claims for disability coverage. The goal: All veterans could get a decision on disability claims within 125 days.
But on this Veterans Day, as Mr. Obama prepares for his second term, the president's pledge not only remains unfulfilled, it has become a rallying cry for sick veterans, their widows and their advocates, who now wait as long as two years for disability decisions from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Records obtained by the Washington Guardian show that as of Nov. 5, the day before Mr. Obama won re-election, 558,230 of the 820,106 veterans seeking disability coverage had their claims pending for more than the 125-day target. That's 68.1 percent, or nearly double the 36 percent rate in the summer of 2010.
And there are tens of thousands more cases pending in various forms of appeal, where decisions can take months or years to resolve. For instance, the average time it takes to resolve a case before the Veterans Appeals Board is 883 days, or almost 2½ years.
The reason things have become worse rather than better under Mr. Obama is that the claims workers his administration hired did not keep pace with the crush of demand from Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans or the new coverage areas authorized in 2010 for Vietnam veterans.
"In the last two years, it has gotten far worse than it has ever been," said Walter J. Tafe, director of the Burlington County Military and Veterans Service in New Jersey, who has helped thousands of veterans or their widows navigate the VA bureaucracy to secure benefits they're owed.
Mr. Tafe said he sympathizes with the regional VA workers, who work hard but simply don't have the resources to keep up with increased demand. He added that he seldom, if ever, sees a case, even a simple one, resolved within the 125-day target that the VA set.
"I'm happy if we can get it done in a year. And that's a simple case. Complicated cases, it can be 18 months or 24 months, easily," Mr. Tafe said in an interview with the Washington Guardian.
And as Veterans Affairs has tried to speed up work to keep the backlog from growing out of hand, its error rate has soared. The VA inspector general told Congress this summer that it found an error rate on high-risk disability claims of 30 percent — more than double the agency's goals — meaning, veterans can be approved or denied benefits incorrectly.
An analysis of appeals cases by the Board of Veterans Appeals suggested that error rate could even be higher, at least in contested cases. It grants appeals or remands cases back to the VA about three-quarters of the time, mostly because of mistakes.
Another factor for the delays is the administration's politically popular decision to approve many more illnesses to be covered under VA disability claims for Vietnam War veterans affected by Agent Orange. But when planning and resources didn't keep up, the system crumbled under the weight of the new burdens.
"Too many veterans still wait too long. That's unacceptable," VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey acknowledged in September.
And so VA has set another goal and strategy. It has redeployed 1,200 employees to work on backlogged claims, increased oversight, significantly increased training of employees and begun a transition from a paper system to a paperless, digital processing system. The workers who underwent training have been able to reduce their error rates, VA said, citing one hopeful sign.
Ms. Hickey says the strategy should be a "lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog."
"VA's goal is to process all disability claims within 125 days, at a 98 percent accuracy level, and eliminate the claims backlog in 2015," the agency said in a statement to the Washington Guardian.
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."
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