Mountain of backlogged VA claims coming down
There is still a backlog of VA claims but it is slowly being reducedPhoto: Video by ktnv.com
Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- The mountain of backlogged claims at the Veterans Administration is slowly coming down but for veterans stuck in the middle it's not fast enough.
For the past year dozens of vets have contacted Action News wondering why the federal agency isn't being held more accountable.
"Either it's not that important to them or they just don't care," explained Demarcus Lewis.
Demarcus has few pictures from the time he served in the Navy. But there's one image that will stay with him forever.
"The ship blowing up and everything," said Lynelle Smith, Demarcus' fiancee.
He was aboard the USS Iowa in 1989 when an explosion ripped through it killing 47 of his fellow crewmen.
"My dad didn't want me to do it. I told him I got to go," said Demarcus.
He went and he gave it everything he had.
"You're constantly on alert you know even when you sleep," explained Demarcus.
Honorably discharged in 1991, his health problems didn't start until a couple years later. Once the solve provider for his family, Demarcus is now mostly confined to his house on dialysis at time for up to 10 hours a day. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"We were getting shot at by kids, women, of course the men," said Demarcus.
He still feels the sharp pain in his leg after an infection forced doctors to amputate part of it six years ago. His fiancee says they take it one day at a time.
"It is very, very , bad right now. His health is very bad," said Lynelle.
Demarcus says the VA awarded him 30% compensation, barely enough to make ends meet. He is fighting back, asking for 100%, the same amount of effort he gave during battle. He filed his claim in July 2012.
Four months later, Demarcus explains, "They send you this crappy letter oh we're looking at it. We're reviewing your case and we haven't come to a decision yet."
The generic letter is one veterans all across Southern Nevada are getting. Some call it an apology for the claims backlog. Local lawmakers say there's a good reason why the Reno VA office is sending them out.
"The average amount of time for a claim up there is 513 days, the fifth worst in the country," said Congresswoman Dina Titus.
Congresswoman Titus is one of many who are scrutinizing the process.
"Within one fiscal year, 17 employees left the office," explained Titus.
"Sounds like a mass exodus," commented Chief Investigator Darcy Spears.
"Right and if you've got that much turnover you don't have people filling slots to be looking at claims," said Titus.
Titus says the Reno office is not only handling claims for veterans in Nevada, but also four counties in California. According to the web site 65% of claims nationwide are currently backlogged meaning more than four months old. Demarcus says he feels like the veterans and their families are being left behind.
"It makes me feel like why did I even go into the military," said Demarcus.
"It doesn't set right with me that they cannot give the same energy that they requested of their soldiers," said Lynelle.
We asked to visit the Reno office but the VA wouldn't let us or our cameras in. They also refused to talk on camera. Instead, they're patting themselves on the back for completing more than 1100 claims between April and June for Nevada veterans who had been waiting more than two years.
"They don't know what status that that veteran is in to even make him wait a year," said Demarcus.
The VA says mandatory overtime and reallocating case workers to the oldest claims is helping them make progress. Their next goal is to target claims like Demarcus', that are almost a year old. His fate is now in the hands of one of the 75 employees processing claims in Reno.
"It's not so much give me money, give me money, it's not that. Take care of them," explained Lynelle.
Reno is now processing nearly all new claims digitally, a transition many say comes too late.
"What do we say to people like Demarcus Lewis," asked Darcy.
"Well we say that it's unacceptable and we're doing all we can to make sure that that doesn't happen every again," explained Congresswoman Titus.
The VA's goal right now is to complete all one year old claims by October 31st. But Demarcus says when he checks his status online it gives a target completion date of November 2014. So who is he to believe? We'll follow his claim until the end and keep tabs on how our lawmakers are helping break through the backlog.
A you a veteran still waiting to hear back on a claim? If so, send an email to email@example.com and share your story with us. Be sure to include your phone number.