By Ian Kullgren
More than 19,000 veterans in Ohio have waited at least two years for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and frustrated members of Congress are calling for action.
The flood of troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan is straining a system leaders say was already outdated. As a solution, the department is starting to use a new process that gives partial credit to veterans who have not provided all the required records.
Under the old system, the VA would table a claim if the applicant failed to provide a required set of documents, including discharge papers and medical-exam records. If one piece was missing, the entire application was shelved.
Richard Smith, a veteran-service officer for Franklin County, said he handles as many as 12 clients a day. He also is a Navy veteran who served in the Gulf War, and has been waiting more than two years for the VA to approve treatment for his frequent headaches.
The surge of returning soldiers set him even farther back in line.
"We've got a war going on right now," Smith said. "As those service members get out, they're filing claims too."
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans account for 22 percent of backlogged claims nationwide, as do Gulf War veterans. Vietnam veterans' claims make up 38 percent, many of which are requests for more assistance.
The VA projects nearly a million backlogged cases for the 2013 fiscal year. The new system, which replaces paper filing with an electronic form, aims to reduce that to fewer than 200,000 by 2015.
U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Columbus, met with Franklin County Veterans Service Commission Director Douglas Lay yesterday to discuss possible solutions. Speaking to reporters afterward, she seemed infuriated by the influx of constituent complaints during her first four months in Washington, and she vowed to help forge a solution.
"It was shocking and appalling to me when I sat in the office and found out that we're not automated," Beatty said of a recent meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Beatty said about 85 percent of the veterans who have contacted her office have been waiting more than 125 days for approval, and about 70 percent have waited at least two years.
In response, her staff is being trained to help veterans understand filing requirements and deal with the VA, and plans to get more information on backlogged cases from their regional office in Cleveland.
The VA has instructed case workers to prioritize cases backlogged longer than 125 days, which some say will simply create longer waits for new applicants.
"It's like a Band-Aid to me," Lay said. "For showing up, we'll give you a little parting gift -- that's not a solution, that's just a partial solution."