Michigan veterans' disability claims continue to pile up

May 9, 2013

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., says we are failing when it comes to providing health care to those who have served in the military:

"Our nation has a moral obligation to provide quality health care to the men and women who put on our nations uniform and are injured and wounded fighting our nations wars… Our responsibility ends only when the wounds are healed…I am sad to say that we as a nation are not meeting this obligation."

He made these remarks in early April during an opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee Joint Hearing on Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs.

Back in August of 2012, we reported on the long wait time for veterans filing disability claims.

Do you have a VA disability claim story? We want to hear from you. Follow the link at the end of the post to share your story.

At the time of our report, veterans in our area were waiting an average of 319 days for a decision from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs on their disability claims. The national average was 257 days.

Unfortunately, there have been few improvements.

Today, the average wait time in our area is 321 days, a slight increase since 2011. And according to a Missouri Watchdog report published last week, the national average has increased to 290 days.

This map shows the number of backlogged VA claims around the country. The Center for Investigative Reporting updates the map every Monday to show changes in each office's pending claims.

Claims are considered on “backlog” after they take longer than 125 days to process.

Although the wait in Michigan is above average, it could be worse.

According to the graphic, Reno’s average wait time in 2013 is 475 days and New York City’s average wait is 449 days.

The Center for Investigative Reporting created graphs that represent the number of pending claims in major metropolitan regions over a four-year period.

Below, you can see the average wait time in the Detroit region.  

Last week, 67 senators signed a letter to President Obama asking for direct action in ending the disability claims backlog. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., was one of the signees.

The letter pointed out the deficiencies of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs:

In the last four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by over 2000 percent, despite a 40 percent increase in the VA’s budget… during this same time period, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however, this has not eliminated the backlog of claims.

In January of this year, the VA released a Strategic Plan to Eliminate the Compensation Claims Backlog. The document outlines a “transformation plan” meant to improve the backlog by retraining administrators, streamlining processes, and improving technology. 

Many are skeptical of the new plan, as reported by Aaron Glantz for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Iraq war veteran, Tom Yasko, said that the VA has lost his disability claim paperwork three times.

Iraq war veteran, Tom Yasko, said that the VA has lost his disability claim paperwork three times.  Remarking on the new transformation plan, he said, “I don’t see what’s changed.”   

Soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan are reporting high rates of traumatic brain injuries and Post-traumatic stress disorder. The increased rates of PTSD and other mental health-related disabilities are attributed to the large number of soldiers serving multiple tours.

There has also been an increase in the number of claims filed by Vietnam veterans because of diseases newly connected to Agent Orange.

As reported by Aaron Glantz, the backlog continues to follow veterans to the grave.

Internal VA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting reveal an escalating number of widows and widowers are waiting for burial benefits and survivors’ pensions – breaking America’s final promise to its veterans.

It takes roughly 229 days for veterans to find out if they qualify for a pension. The average wait time for a funeral subsidy for veterans is 207 days.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who leads the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, singled out the backlog of burial benefits as particularly egregious.

“VA has continually demonstrated an inability to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Miller said. “With so much of the department’s attention focused on eliminating the disability benefits backlog, burial benefits claims are languishing.”

Do you have a VA disability claim story? 

We want to hear from you. 

You can follow this link to share your story.

- Julia Field, Michigan Radio Newsroom