Wounded & waiting

The virtual definition of a “military man,” veteran Mike Samples has spent almost three decades occupying various positions at a variety of posts, all in the name of service to this country.

Currently a reservist with the Air Force, Samples’ most recent overseas tours have taken him to Puerto Rico and Qatar.

In October 2011, the 47-year-old Vienna resident filed a disability claim related to his service with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Languishing for 18 months, he suddenly found himself thrust into a world of bureaucratic finger-pointing and seemingly endless spools of red tape.

“It makes things difficult when you are really trying to plan your life for for your wife and children,” Samples said of his long wait for a decision by the VA.

Samples’ situation is not uncommon. Across the country, servicemen and women are coming home to find an overwhelmed VA with mountains of backlogged compensation claims.

“It’s the wait,” Samples said. “At some point, somebody is going to have to grab this horse by the reins.”

One of the most vexing problems in the post-9/11 era of the military, governmental attempts to develop a strategy to deal with the estimated 800,000 to 1 million unchecked claims nationwide at its peak has left many in the military community searching for answers.

Herm Breuer, service officer with Trumbull County’s Veterans Service Commission, said Samples is actually one of the lucky ones. In an attempt to slow down the avalanche of backlogged claims, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a plan in April to implement a provisional rating, which would expedite the process for those veterans with claims a year or older.

“Jim actually received a provisional rating just recently,” Breuer said, meaning his case will be moved to the front of the line.

The VA is hoping this provisional rating system can eliminate the backlog by 2015. The expedited process starts with the oldest claims and works through them, officials said.

“The backlog is not and has never been acceptable,” Shinseki said during a recent news conference. “We are aggressively executing a plan to eliminate it.”

This plan also includes a recently announced partnership between the VA, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans, with the goal to troubleshoot other potential fixes to the enormous backlog.

Still, Breuer said some claims have been sitting in limbo for far longer than a year and, in some cases, the wait stretches for multiple years. He says those cases need to be designated for an expedited decision before any others.

“They say at the top of the press release, ‘a year or more,'” Breuer said. “The reason I bring that up is they can’t seem to get it through their heads that there are claims that are two years old.”

According to Breuer, as of April 15, the Cleveland Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had an estimated 2,700 claims that are around two years old.

“They just hadn’t done anything with them,” Breuer said.

How did we get here?

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq put a large percentage of service members in harm’s way, creating a backlog for disability claims.

“The claims that they were accumulating back then were growing,” Breuer said. “In 2003, the backlog was somewhere around 200,000 claims.”

As those two wars continued, the accumulated claims grew at a pace the VA could not manage.

Complicating the issue, officials announced in 2009 that Vietnam veterans would be eligible for claims on an additional three disabilities related to the herbicide defoliant Agent Orange that weren’t previously available for compensatory action.

At that point, Breuer said the VA began focusing on the claims made by the Vietnam veterans, while the country’s two wars continued to produce more and more troops suffering from ailments related to their service.

“They got through all the backlog that was created from all the Agent Orange related claims and now they’re left with this mountain after the smoke all cleared,” Breuer said. “These amounted to between 800,000 to 1 million claims.”

As a result, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently reported the average length of time for the VA to complete a disability claim increased from 161 days to 260 days between the fiscal years 2009 and 2012.

The process in place at the VA for making a disability claim doesn’t help matters. Claim submission and evaluation for the VA, according to Breuer, was developed in 1945 – specifically the fact that most claims are still being physically submitted.

“There are a couple of regional offices that have gone digital, but for the most part, everything is still in paper,” Breuer said.

Samples explained some of the techniques he witnessed while visiting a doctor at a veterans hospital.

“My folder was as thick as a book,” Samples said. “It was open here, flip this, look at that, turn this, open this tab, close that. And, they were happy with mine. I thought, if you’re happy with mine, what could you be unhappy with?”

Ohio is particularly vulnerable to backed-up claims due to the high number of veterans. According to the VA, there are 899,615 Ohio veterans, which is the sixth-most in the country. That mark is behind only California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and New York.

Although Ohio has a large veteran population, it only has one regional VA office, according to Breuer.

“It is the only state in the top six that has just one regional office,” Breuer said. “Some of those other states have up to three regional offices to decide claims.”

From January 2011 to December 2012, Breuer estimates the Trumbull County Veterans Services Commission filed around 900 new claims. His office is run by the county, not the state, and its purpose is to help veterans in need of assistance. Much of this time is devoted to disability claims, but not all of it.

Combining the high number of veterans, the antiquated system of deciding claims and the multiple wars fought in the last decade, Samples wants to be certain not to cast blame on any one entity.

“I can’t imagine being the guy on the other side of this situation with thousands of claims on his desk, because I’d be pulling my hair out,” Samples said. “I’m sure people (at the VA) want to help (veterans) as much as possible, but somebody really has to make the process easier.”

A solution to the problem

Earlier this month, Ohio lawmakers urged federal officials to reduce the processing time for veterans’ disability claims. Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, a Medina Republican, called the situation “tragic.”

On the federal level, the VA is beginning to see positive returns from its recent initiatives, including the provisional rating system, officials said. Though specific real-time numbers are unclear, officials indicate the once massive backlog is trending in the right direction.

“Too many veterans wait too long for a decision, and this has never been acceptable,” Shinseki said. “This (provisional) initiative is the right thing to do now for veterans who have waited the longest.”

Still, Breuer said there needs to be better communication between the VA’s central and regional offices.

“Gen. Shinseki will say something like, ‘I want all claims to be processed in 120 days,'” Breuer said. “That’s what he said two years ago and the actual time for the decisions on these claims grew. It’s almost like the people in Washington will say one thing, but then the people regionally will do whatever they want.”

In addition, he said digitizing the system should be a goal that the VA is actively working toward.

“They’ve come out and said it would take them another few years before the VA is completely electronic,” Breuer said. “Trumbull County has been digital since 2008 and we’re just a county office. Social Security is able to do it and they handle many more claims than the VA does. It should be possible.”

In the meantime, the key for many familiar with these problems is to continue getting the word out.

To be sure, with such a huge backlog of claims along with new filings being added each day, there is no simple solution, but creating awareness outside the often close-knit, tight-lipped military community is a big step in the right direction, according to Breuer.

“We’ve been wanting people to be aware of this, so they can understand that there is a problem,” Breuer said. “It’s not about assigning blame and we don’t want to do that. It’s about fixing the problem.”