BALTIMORE — The Baltimore office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is the slowest in the country in processing disability claims for servicemen and servicewomen — averaging about a year — and makes more mistakes than any other office.
The failures locally are a symptom of a national breakdown: Across the country, more than 900,000 veterans wait an average of nine months for the agency to determine whether they qualify for disability benefits, according to the VA.
Even as the VA says it is working to fix problems in Baltimore and nationwide, Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, calls the situation “shameful."
“You have to think about that young veteran in Baltimore who has just come back from his third or fourth tour," he said. “They are stuck in limbo, and our veterans deserve better than that."
Officials with the VA acknowledge as much. A spokeswoman for the agency called the delays “unacceptable" and said the VA is focused on clearing its backlog and getting veterans the benefits that they have earned and deserve.
Yet meanwhile, the delays continue.
A 30-month wait
Robert Fearing, a combat veteran of the Iraq War and a Bronze Star recipient, has been hospitalized three times for paranoia and anxiety caused by post-traumatic stress disorder since he filed his disability claim with the Baltimore office 21⁄2 years ago. He’s still waiting for his benefits.
“I have gone through war fighting the enemy and now I need to fight my own government for the benefits I deserve," said Fearing, who was an Aberdeen, Md., resident when he filed his claim but now lives in Stafford, Va. “It is absolutely frustrating and despicable."
Fearing said the base where he was stationed, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, was attacked by mortar rounds more than 150 times in the six months he served there from 2004 to 2005.
The trauma left him with paranoia, a belief that he’s being investigated and followed, a feeling “you can’t shake out of your head," said Fearing, 44, who is married and has two daughters at home. Fearing, who retired from the Air Force in 2007 after serving for 20 years, earned a master’s degree while he was in the military to further his career in counterintelligence. But he said the work now triggers debilitating anxiety and he is seeking an early retirement from his government job.
“The real issue with it is, I want someone to acknowledge the fact that I’ve got it. I’ve had to acknowledge it and I have to live with it. What more do they need? Me to be hospitalized again?" he said.
The backlog, lag time and error rates at the VA have been the focus of congressional hearings, a cause for outrage by military advocacy groups and the subject of repeated media investigations. Yet the situation has grown significantly worse.
Nationally, the VA processed more than twice as many claims in 2012 as it did in 2001, but it has been unable to keep up with demand. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office shows that the agency completed 6 percent more claims from 2009 to 2011, but the caseload grew by 29 percent in the same period.
For three consecutive years, the VA has processed more than a million disability claims, which is more than double the number processed in 2001.
And claims are expected to continue to increase as the country transitions from a decade at war.
Disability compensation, which can range from about $125 to $3,000 in monthly payments, is available to veterans who sustain an injury or worsen an existing condition while on duty. The VA is experiencing a historic level of claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, whose disabilities tend to be more complex than cases in the past. Outside of petitioning the help of veterans advocates, elected officials and lawyers to pressure the VA, veterans have virtually no recourse available while they wait.
“This is an unacceptable situation," Rieckhoff said. “Veterans are angry and they should be. Baltimore is one of the worst areas, but this is national problem that the president has failed to conquer."
The average number of days that veterans across the U.S. wait for an initial decision jumped from 166 days to 262 days, or nearly nine months, over the past two years. The VA’s stated goal by 2015 is to process all claims within 125 days, but as it stands now about 70 percent of claims are older than that.
Veterans who contest the agency’s decision can wait years on top of the time it takes to initially process a claim. If claims are eventually awarded, the benefits are retroactive.
In Baltimore, the average wait time for an initial decision is almost 12 months.
About 84 percent, or 16,800 of the 20,000 local claims, are older than 125 days, giving Baltimore the highest percentage of backlogged cases in the country as of Jan. 19.
Five other cities — Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., and Reno, Nev. — have caseloads with backlogs of 80 percent and higher. The percentages fluctuate slightly week to week.
A new national model intended to take a case-management approach to claims processing was put in place in Baltimore last month.
The local office is also set to move to a Web-based claims-processing system later this year. The database, called the Veterans Benefits Management System, was piloted at about a third of the VA’s 56 regional offices last year. It will eliminate paper files, which sometimes contain thousands of documents that can be lost or misplaced as a case is handed off multiple times.
“We recognize that too many veterans are waiting too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve. That’s unacceptable, and that’s why VA is building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system — a lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog," Meagan Lutz, a VA spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The agency attributes the ballooning claims backlog to several factors. Approximately 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking compensation, which is a historically high percentage for wartime service. That’s compounded by the severe and complex nature of their injuries. The new veterans claim an average range of eight to 10 disabilities, such as hearing loss and PTSD. That’s more than double the number of conditions from Vietnam-era claims.
The backlog also grew, according to the agency, when the VA expanded access to benefits for medical conditions related to Agent Orange, Gulf War illness and combat PTSD.