Backlog of claims leaves many veterans struggling
Veterans are facing a backlog when attempting to file claimsPhoto: Video by ktnv.com
Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- They proudly served their country in the military but those who sacrificed so much say they're stuck in a seemingly endless backlog of claims for needed benefits.
In Nevada alone, a state senator says there are 10,000 vets waiting for an answer to their claim. So what's being done about the problem? When You Ask. We Investigate.
"Sir, the thing I can verify for you is where you are in the pecking order and you're number 8,342 today," explained Robert Sutton.
That's where Robert was told his file is in a backlog of claims in Nevada. His 20 years in the Marine Corps taught him structure and efficiency but he says the process to get disabled vet status is anything but.
"Where's the payback there? Come on guys we did this for you, where's your payback," asked Robert.
As an artillery mechanic, AKA gun doctor, his deployments took him all over the world, facing all kinds of danger.
"You know getting off the back of these trucks whenever we'd go into position twisting our ankles, hitting our knees on stuff," said Robert.
After 20 years and 23 days, his body couldn't take it anymore.
"I have sleep apnea, degenerative disc disease, high blood pressure [and] fatty liver disease," said Robert.
Robert retired a year early in February and began the process of getting disabled vet status. At the time. He lived in Waco, Texas. But after problems with filing a claim there he moved his family to Las Vegas to be closer to relatives and try to escape the Texas sized claims backlog that plagued vets in that state.
He filed another claim in October 2012 at the VA Hospital in North Las Vegas. After four months, he got a generic letter from the VA saying his claim may be delayed.
"Why would we have these letters being written when obviously that's going to take time and energy to produce those," asked Senator Dean Heller.
Time and energy Senator Heller says should be spent on processing claims. Heller, whose father is a vet, sits on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"If I'm frustrated as a member sitting on the committee, imagine how frustrated these men and women must be," said Senator Heller.
According to the VA, 69% of all claims nationwide are backlogged meaning they're more than four months old. Heller says the VA has rejected the committee's offer of more money and more staff, instead saying the problem is technology.
"Why are we sitting here in 2013 still saying we have an antiquated computer system," asked Chief Investigator Darcy Spears.
"You're asking the right questions," said Senator Heller.
Questions we wanted to ask the VA, but they wouldn't talk with us on camera.
They did tell us they're getting rid of all the paper. They're switching over to a new digital paperless system to process and track claims. A system they say will communicate better with Federal Departments.
It's supposed to be installed at all regional offices by the end of this year with the hope they'll be able to complete most claims within about four months by the end of 2015.
"Is it realistic based on the backlog we're dealing with now," asked Darcy.
"If we're basing it on my history over the last five years, it sounds like it's going to be very difficult to get to that, that's two years away," said Senator Heller.
Robert is skeptical too.
"That doesn't take DA Vince or some kinds of rocket scientist to figure out that that is not going to work when every day new claims are being filed," said Robert.
The VA has expanded benefits for vets and more medical conditions are being added to claims. Each condition needs to be verified and documented. Senator Heller has even suggested privatizing the claims process. But as a more immediate solution, he's drafted a new bill.
"To try and push these departments into being more accountable," explained Senator Heller.
The Accountability for Veterans Act of 2013 would require agencies to respond to VA requests for information within 30 days.
If they can't they'll have to say why and when they will be able to respond. For vets, perhaps the most important part of Heller's bill is communication. The VA would have to give updates through the process, not the generic letters that offer no hope. It's now going through the legislative process.
"Getting a disability rating brings college benefits to my kids that I wouldn't otherwise be able to afford," said Robert.
"It doesn't just affect his life, obviously it's affecting his family's life and obviously his daughter's as she moves on with her higher education," said Senator Heller.
The VA recently announced a plan to expedite compensation claims decisions for vets who have waited a year or longer. They'll make provisional decisions allowing vets to collect compensation benefits quicker. But Robert doesn't fit into that category yet.
Senator Heller has joined more than 60 senators in a letter sent to President Obama Monday urging him for direct action to help end the backlog. We're going to keep following this and keep in touch with Robert to see when his claim is processed.
Are you a vet whose claim is delayed? If so, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your contact information.