A backlog of unprocessed disability claims in the Oakland Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has led military veterans to call on congressional leaders for assistance to obtain benefits.
Veterans Affairs Oakland Director Douglas Braggs and Western Area Regional Director Willie Clark appeared at a congressional hearing before representatives Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) at the War Memorial Building in San Francisco Monday in order to respond to complaints from veterans about delays in claims processing that have left hundreds of servicemen and women without disability and health benefits.
The hearing occurred approximately one year after Sergeant First Class Ari Sonnenberg, who served in Iraq, came to Speier’s office to tell her that his attempts to receive benefits through the Veterans Affairs Office in Oakland had been met with excuses, lost paperwork and other processing delays. After more than one year of attempting to have his claim finalized, he told Speier at the time, he had received no financial benefits that would provide for his everyday needs or medical coverage.
“I am a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury,” Sonnenberg said on Monday, addressing congressmembers, the press and veterans inside the War Memorial Building. “I suffer from depression and the haunting memories of the horrors of war, which have caused me to attempt suicide. The unnecessary delays, the loss of documents and the mishandling of information [with my claim] have added stress and anxiety to my already difficult life.”
He went on to say that if not for the help of Speier and her district director Richard Steffen in making sure that his claim was processed, he would still be “floating around” in the system at the mercy of a “poorly trained and an ineffective regional office.”
The Obama administration targeted backlogged veterans’ claims in 2009, but Speier said that Sonnenberg’s complaint caused her office to look more closely at the way veterans’ claims are handled. A review of the adjudication process also led to a review of the case management practices in the Oakland office, and it was determined that more than 30,000 cases are pending in the Oakland office.
Briggs and Clark from the Veterans Affairs Office said the primary cause of the backlog in the Oakland office was the need to handle a large number of cases that were reopened after a court case filed in 1986, Nehmer v. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, readjudicated claims previously filed by members of a class action suit relating to conditions including ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, hairy cell leukemia and other chronic B-cell leukemia. The court decision handed down in 2010 required a review of claims filed or denied dating back to September 25, 1985.
Clark said that not only were the Veterans Affairs offices required to readjudicate some 250,000 claims nationwide that fell within the parameters of the Nehmer litigation, but those claims needed to be processed ahead of other pending cases.
But according to Clark, this is not the sole factor in the accumulation of pending cases. “We have had unprecedented resources in the last several years to try to combat the increases [in claims] that we have had in the VA,” Clark said. “But we’ve also had unprecedented increases in receipts, [a] 48 percent increase in the amount of work coming in the door.”
“We have to find a way to get better, and we are getting better,” he said.
Although the Oakland office processed 30,000 cases last year, there are 34,000 additional claims, according to Clark. On average, the office is capable of processing two to three regular claims per day, but Nehmer claims requires more time because the research associated with the case is more extensive, as they may require locating the individual or a family member if the veteran is deceased. This often results in the office being able to process less than one Nehmer claim per day. While handling the Nehmer cases, the office continued to receive new claims, Clark said.
Clark said he wanted the veterans and members of Congress to know that there are hardworking individuals trying to complete this task, adding that more than 53 percent of the personnel in the Oakland office are veterans just like the people they are attempting to serve.
Although Clark said he and others are looking at ways to bring the claims current, on Monday hundreds of other veterans arrived at the hearing with statements, questions and, in many instances, stacks of letters and paperwork received from the Veterans Affairs Office asking for additional medical records or other documentation to support their disability claims.
Many of the men and women who spoke at the hearing—several of whom served in Vietnam and others in World War II—indicated they have been attempting to come to some resolution with the Veterans Affairs Office for 30 or 40 years.
In an effort to clarify some of the issues related to the individual cases, a temporary claims station was set up next door to the hearing headquarters. Individuals were assigned a number and waited to speak with claims representatives about their files. By the end of the day, claims representatives managed to interview approximately 116 people. Anne Cooper was number 184. She waited the entire day hoping to speak with someone on behalf of her husband, a Vietnam veteran who is currently hospitalized. He submitted a claim in March, 2010, for medical conditions associated with his exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic contaminant used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War. At this time the status of his claim is unknown, said his wife.
“We just are frustrated by the fact that the VA center in Oakland has not been responsive,” Cooper said. “We have called and tried to get appointments and they’ll set up appointments and then they don’t call.”
Cooper said she recognized that with budget cuts, the people handing the cases may be overworked, but she also believes that this influx in the number of claims could have been anticipated considering the change in the economy and the number of veterans who after retirement seem to experience flashbacks or a sudden decline in their physical health. She said that while she understands that that the Veterans Affairs Office is a service organization, it should also be run like a business. Cooper said that one of the biggest disappointments of the day was that during the hearing she had not heard a plan to resolve the problem with the outstanding claims.
Both Braggs and Clark are confident that veterans will soon see an improvement in the response to claims filed through the Oakland office. At this time new claims are being redirected to Nebraska and Oklahoma, Clark said. There are plans for a new online system that will reduce the number of paper files and allow for expedited access to medical files using the Unified Business Management System that will reduce the wait time for coverage decisions to weeks instead of months, said Clark. The current time frame to fully implement the new procedures is 2015.
As the hearing came to a conclusion, both Representatives Speier and Lee pledged to provide the veterans who were present a status update on their cases in approximately two weeks. “We are going to demand that things get better,” said Speier, adding that claims handling procedures for veterans as they stand today are unacceptable and a disgrace.
“As I was listening to some of the horror stories, I kept thinking how quickly we can authorize our men and women to go into war at the drop of a penny,” Lee said, “yet when you come home it takes 30, 40, 50 years to resolve a claim. That is unacceptable. This should be done quickly. You should be able to receive at least an answer so you can determine what you are going to do next. ”