November 13, 2013

OUR OPINION: On disability claims, Togus is better than most, but not good enough

More than 400,000 US veterans have gone more than 125 days without an answer

Togus among best processors, but wounded warriors still are waiting too long

The good news is that Maine’s Veterans Benefits Administration office is one of the fastest at processing disability claims. The bad news is that the competition is anything but fierce.

As of Veterans Day, more than 400,000 disability applicants have been waiting more than 125 days for an answer from the federal government. That’s more than 400,000 veterans, many recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, waiting too long for compensation related to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other health issues.

Maine’s Togus office has the second-lowest rate of backlogged claims, 38.4 percent, behind the 32.6 percent rate of the Sioux Falls, S.D., office. However, eight regional offices report more than 65 percent of their claims are more than 125 days old, including the worst offenders, Baltimore (71.7 percent) and Houston (68.2 percent).

Those numbers have been improving steadily since the backlog was first reported last spring. But the Department of Veterans Affairs, which overseas the regional offices, has a long way to go to reach its goal of eliminating long waits by 2015, and keeping the promises it makes to those who serve the country.

In March, the backlog list stood at 611,000 veterans. In addition, the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization, reported that the department’s 273-day average waiting time for claim processing was misleading. Veterans filing their first claim, as when returning from combat overseas, typically waited two months longer than that, and wait times in major population areas were almost twice as long: 642 days in New York and 619 days in Los Angeles, to name two. The number of veterans waiting more than a year on claims rose from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 by December 2012.

It was clear that President Barack Obama wasn’t following through on his campaign promise to make the VA more efficient. In fact, the situation was getting worse, and a plan to digitize records was going nowhere.

The waiting times have real consequences. One young veteran of the war in Afghanistan told the Center that he had relied on high-interest payday loans to cover rent while he waited two years for his claim to be answered. During that time, he called the veterans suicide hotline three times. An Iraq war veteran, injured when he was run over by an SUV near Kuwait, said his electricity was cut off three times while he waited for a response.

The Center’s report was followed by public outcry, and the VA responded by increasing overtime for workers and speeding up the implementation of a new computer system. As a result, the number of veterans waiting for more than a year has dropped to 34,000, along with the decrease overall in backlogged claims. The average waiting time in Los Angeles was cut to 198 days, as of last month. The average wait time nationwide was more than cut in half.

The VA is clearly headed in the right direction. But where would the backlog be if it hadn’t been for the Center’s report? And what will happen if the spotlight goes dim? This is an issue that deserves the public’s attention until the waits are erased and veterans are getting the help they deserve.

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