By Derek Wilson
Memandro Tamoro was fed up after waiting for a year to get a response to his claim with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He finally found a sympathetic ear during a short elevator ride and soon things got moving on his claim.
"At the time, there were no other options," Tamoro said after a friend told him to tell his troubles to his congresswoman. "I went to (Congresswoman Jackie Speier's) office and she was there in elevator with me on the way to the office and I talked to her. She listened and told me to come into her office and she said she'd look into it."
Tamoro, a reserve specialist from South San Francisco who returned from his deployment to the Middle East a year ago, was caught in a situation that seems to be familiar to many returning veterans. A former gunner, Tamoro returned home with debilitating back injuries. Tamoro says he filed a claim with the VA on Feb. 9, 2011, but "the whole year was a wave of phone calls" that seemed to lead nowhere.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) opened a hearing last year at the War Memorial Veterans Building during which they heard from hundreds of wounded veterans whose benefits were slow to arrive.
More than 1.3 million wounded veterans have claims pending with the federal government, including the more than 34,000 who have filed with the Oakland VA office only to wait nearly a year (on average) for an initial review.
Speier's office announced Monday that 62 veterans who had come to her for help regarding their claims had been awarded nearly $3 million in benefits.
"There is a mixed message with these awards," Speier wrote in her announcement. "Although a seven figure total award sounds like a lot, we had ten awards that involved an average retroactive payment of $74,350. Since the VA took two years or more to adjudicate these claims, the final awards required large back payments--claims are based on the date the claim is initially filed with the VA. Unemployed veterans suffering from combat-inflicted PTSD should not have to wait until they are nearly homeless for their benefits. One veteran told my staff he cried at the bank when he deposited his first VA check after a three-year wait."
Tamoro, with a wife and 3-year-old daughter at home, couldn't wait that long for his benefits to kick in.
"It was a very difficult time," he said. "I have a family of my own. I have to go to school I have to have my payments through the VA. I need the income for my family."
There's room in the Bay Area for another good Filipino restaurant and Tamoro hopes to fill that space having completed his culinary studies. The check he receives every month from the VA doesn't pay all his family's bills, but Tamoro is sounding more positive now that help has arrived.
The highest retroactive payment was $129,600 and the total of all retroactive payments was $1,698,725. The monthly benefit awards for these 62 veterans averaged $1,630, or about $1.2 million over one calendar year.
"My situation was I was looking back at injuries that happened years ago. I went to see doctors at the VA Hospital in San Francisco and they took care of me. But my case got stuck in (the Oakland VA office)," said Oscar Munoz, who served in the U.S. Army and Navy for eight years. "Every other month there was a different case officer for it. No one could give me an answer. I went to (Speier's) office and she made the call."
Munoz, also from South San Francisco, is a political science student at Notre Dame de Namur. His VA benefits pay for his tuition, books and supplies.
Munoz wants to point out that the doctors at the VA Hospital in San Francisco gave him excellent care, but the bureaucracy doesn't match the quality of the medical care. "The system works, but you have to get into the system and that's the hard part," he said.
"I'd like to get a job with the U.S. Government somewhere. They're supposed to place me in a job because of my disabilities. It's part of the benefits I have," Munoz said. "My idea would be to help with these cases. I want to get where I can help to speed up the process. I'm effective when it comes to paperwork. That would be my choice."
Munoz blames a backlog of cases for the delay in receiving his benefits, but has a suggestion for the federal government.
"The main problem is (the Oakland VA office) has too many cases. They're just swamped with cases," he said. "They should transfer some of those cases to someone somewhere who has less work to do."
Tamoro says the VA needs to fast track more cases because veterans just can't afford to wait for a year or more to get their benefits. In the meantime, he advises anyone in a similar situation to call their congress person. It worked for Tamoro, Munoz and the 60 other veterans who went to Speier.
"Without her help, otherwise, I'd be probably waiting for an answer still," Munoz said. "She's fighting this fight. She's good."
Speier said, "We also have 21 cases that haven't been adjudicated. So while there is some measure of success for 62 veterans, our work is not done until all old claims have been resolved, not just the ones at my office, but the claims of the 25,220 veterans in Northern California who've been waiting too long for a decision. Thanking our troops requires more than spoken words--it demands that we provide medical and financial assistance in a timely fashion to those whose lives have been altered by military service."