TOPICS > Nation

Returning Veterans Face Huge Backlog, Disorganization in Fight for Benefits

March 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Returning from combat, many veterans face another battle: waiting for medical claims to be processed. A recent report found that 245,000 veterans wait a year or more for help from the Veterans Administration. Hari Sreenivasan talks with veterans and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki about the delays and backlog.

RAY SUAREZ: Now to the battle for benefits for service men and women after they return home.

President Obama has called caring for veterans a top priority of his administration, but a new report shows that the number of men and women who served in the military who are waiting more than a year for benefits has grown 2,000 percent since 2009.

We turn again to Hari for that story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: These Iraq and Afghanistan veterans brought their fight to Capitol Hill last week. They’re trying to draw attention to the medical benefits backlog at the Veterans Administration, benefits owed to them for their service.

Nearly a quarter-of-a-million men and women who served in the armed forces have been waiting more than a year for their claims to be resolved. According to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting, based on leaked internal VA documents, the claims processing time has grown in the past four years, and the number of people waiting has increased.

Aaron Glantz has written extensively about the VA’s problems and uncovered the story.

AARON GLANTZ, Center for Investigative Reporting: The most consistent thing that I hear is that: I came home and the country doesn’t care and the government is making me wait far too long for my benefits.

And then, if you have a traumatic brain injury or PTSD or one of these other conditions, you’re dealing with it on your own.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In 2009, 11,000 veterans were waiting more than a year for benefits. Last year, that figure was 245,000, a more than twenty-fold increase, numbers the VA confirms.

Glantz’s report also showed that, in urban areas, like New York City, the average time to have a claim processed is 642 days.

We sat down with three veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are frustrated with the delays.

REIRED SGT. RACHEL MCNEILL, U.S. Army Reserves: My name is Rachel McNeill. I was a sergeant in the Army. And I was medically retired in 2010. The most recent notice of disagreement that the VA acknowledged was over 800 days ago.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sgt. McNeill had respiratory ailments from a tour in Iraq.

RETIRED CAPT. AARON THORSON, U.S. Army; My name is Aaron Thorson. I was a captain in the Army until 2011, when I exited out, transitioned into civilian life. I waited 405 days for my disability claim to go through.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Capt. Thorson was a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan who suffers from a crushed disc in his back, a common injury among combat pilots.

RETIRED STAFF SGT. ZACH MCILWAIN, U.S. Army: I’m Zach McIlwain. I was in the United States Army. I was a staff sergeant. I deployed in Iraq in 2005 — or 2006 to 2009. And when I got back, I filed my claims, and yesterday was my day 908.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Staff Sgt. McIlwain sustained a hand injury during his time in the Army. The average time for the resolution of a disability claim is 279 days.

First-time claims can take even longer, averaging 318 days, leaving veterans to pay for expenses on their own in the meantime. These veterans say their interactions with the VA included difficulty finding someone to talk to, lost paperwork and a slow, unresponsive bureaucracy.

RACHEL MCNEILL: It’s really hard to find someone to actually talk to. You know, I spent a lot of time on hold. You know, I can’t even — I can’t even imagine how many hours of my life I have actually spent on hold at the VA.

I will be — you know, they will pass you around to different departments, and nobody can help you. And you know, then you will get hung up on because they — somebody just drops your call. You know, it’s just — it’s a totally incoherent process.

ZACH MCILWAIN: They kept losing my medical documentation. I kept handing it off to them, and somebody would lose it. And then, in fact, one of my claims was denied because, even though I had handed in the paperwork, they lost it and denied my claim for failure of receipt of paperwork.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Retired four-star Gen. Eric Shinseki was appointed Cabinet secretary for the Veterans Affairs Administration in 2009.

He says a big part of the backlog is because the VA began making it easier for veterans from previous wars to claim benefits from the side effects of Agent orange and Gulf War Syndrome.

SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS RETIRED GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI: We added to our workload a bit, because three years ago we decided to take care of some unfinished business, Agent Orange for Vietnam veterans, for the Gulf War veterans, Gulf War illness. Nine diseases in 20 years had never been addressed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Reporter Aaron Glantz:

AARON GLANTZ: I think there is some merit to that, but it’s not the complete answer. They have had a 50 percent increase in the number of veterans filing claims during the Obama administration.

On the other hand, as I mentioned, the number of veterans waiting more than a year has increased by more than 2,000 percent. And the overall waiting list has more than doubled. So, it’s not just that more people are filing claims or that more people are filing more complicated claims. It’s also that the reforms that they have put in place to deal with this have not worked.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The veterans we spoke to are part of that waiting list and feel like they have to keep fighting even after returning home.

So we spoke to a couple of veterans that came by our studios yesterday, and I told them, if I was to sit in your office, I would carry their message. It’s fairly simple.

ZACH MCILWAIN: When I volunteered to do convoy security, where I knew that something could happen, I did that having faith that if anything happened to me, you would be taken care of.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You feel left behind?

RACHEL MCNEILL: Yes. Why should you have to fight? Why should you have to fight for your benefits? I went to war. I did what I had to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What do you say to these veterans?

ERIC SHINSEKI: There is no reason for veterans to have to wait, as these veterans are obviously confronting.

But we are here to solve this problem. Four years ago, as I said, no plan. We have a plan today, and we are in the midst of fielding this. I think 260,000 claims were added to our inventory just by that one decision alone on Agent Orange. And you can add to that Gulf War illness and you can add to that combat PTSD.

So, hundreds of thousands of claims added to a paper process, we thought that was the right thing to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some of the veterans we spoke with, one of the key things that they have learned in the military is failing to plan is planning to fail. You knew this was coming. Congress has been lobbying for 10 years to try to incorporate these groups of veterans in. Was there a systematic failure to plan for this influx of veterans?

ERIC SHINSEKI: Well, 10 years of war and the requirements have grown.

And we’re in paper, and four years ago, there was no plan to come out of paper to go into electronics. That plan is in place.

AARON GLANTZ: The VA loves to talk about how they’re computerizing this process.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Glantz says the plans are insufficient and that the system is still buckling under a mountain of paperwork.

AARON GLANTZ: In our internal documents that we have obtained from the VA, they show that, as of January, 97 percent of claims were still on paper. And this is after a four-year, half-billion-dollar effort.

Last August, the VA’s own inspector general found that there were so many paper file folders at the VA office in North Carolina that it was damaging the structural integrity of the building.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Meanwhile, for some veterans, the wait has already taken a toll.

Did any of you feel like giving up?

ZACH MCILWAIN: I had moments where I just didn’t see an end. I didn’t see an end state. There was no way I was going to get through this as far as being able to move forward.

I don’t think I ever — I was never really going to follow through, but I had my moments where I was in a dark place trying to find — seek resolution and figure out — it’s hard to talk about and it’s hard to admit to is, yes, I had my moments where I questioned what kind of future I would have.

RACHEL MCNEILL: We don’t have time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: These veterans stress the urgency of a solution.

AARON THORSON: Yes, there’s no time. And we can’t afford for this to happen, continue to happen. There’s — there’s 22 veteran suicides every day, and there’s people out there that need help.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So who do you think is responsible for where we are today and the frustration that so many of these veterans are facing?

ERIC SHINSEKI: The president was very clear when I arrived four years ago he wants this fixed. And he has given us the resources, a 40 percent increase. And so you’re speaking to the individual who has that responsibility.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The buck stops with you?

ERIC SHINSEKI: The buck stops right here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While this group of former service members didn’t hold the secretary personally responsible, they are pushing for a presidential commission to figure out solutions to what they consider a broken system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, you can see more from Hari’s interviews with the veterans and VA Secretary Shinseki.