Investigative
4:44 pm
Wed August 29, 2012

Veterans' disability claims in limbo at Michigan VA office (share your story)

We've written before about the "unfinished business" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan... caring for thousands of vets who are coming home after multiple tours with symptoms of PTSD or other disabilities.

Vets seeking benefits to help with their disabilities can face long wait times.

Thanks to a new analysis released today by the Center for Investigative Reporting, we can get a sense for how long those wait times are.

In our area, veterans applying for disability benefits wait an average of 319 days for a decision from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regional office in downtown Detroit. That's longer than the national average of 257 days.

CIR data show that not only are the wait times long for veterans in this region, they're getting worse.

The analysis also shows average wait time for veterans at the office has increased by 25.7 percent when comparing wait times in the prior 1.3 years.

And for those who appeal their claim, the wait can take more than three years.

The data for all 58 VA regional offices is displayed on this interactive map. The map shows the number of backlogged claims around the country, and will update every Monday to show changes in each office's pending claims.

Aaron Glantz reports for CIR that the backlog continues to plague VA offices despite new investments:

Delays have increased despite a new $300 million computer system and 3,300 claims processors hired since 2010 – 765 of them for additional positions.

The department has pledged to eliminate the claims backlog by 2015, but VA data shows the number of veterans waiting for a decision is growing – to more than 907,000 as of July 30, with 832,000 of them waiting for disability or survivor benefits, while thousands more seek a pension or GI Bill education benefits.

The new computer system has only been installed in four offices. A paper system is used in the other offices. The VA says it expects the computer system will be installed in all offices by 2015.

But even that new system might not help:

Average wait times at all four offices equipped with the new computer system have increased. At three of the four offices, the number of pending claims also has grown.

In Salt Lake City, which has the new system, the average wait time has increased to 236 days – and nearly 20,000 veterans are waiting.

Another problem, Glantz reports, is the number of claims being filed. Veteran benefit claims have been increasing over the last two years, and those cases can be more complex than in years past:

Improvements in battlefield medicine mean Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are more likely to survive multiple deployments, the VA said in a statement, and as a result, veterans “are returning with triple the medical issues of previous generations, driving the complexity of these claims and their associated workload to an all-time high.”

Vietnam-era vets also contribute to the increase in disability claims. The government recently expanded eligibility for health benefits related to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.

We want to follow up on this story in our area.

Do you have a VA disability claim story?

If you do, we want to hear about it.

You can follow this link to share your story.