While the VA works to resolve a huge claims backlog, the process may actually get worse for some, before it gets better for everyone.
The VA has been under fire for taking months, and even years, to process veterans’ claims.
Dale Maupin got caught in the backlog. He survived his tour of duty as a Marine, returning home in 2010.
“I came back to someplace safe. Even though sometimes we don’t feel safe, I made it home," he says. "The sky was never so blue, the grass was never so green and the water never tasted so good. I felt lucky."
But his life quickly fell apart. The 27-year-old didn’t have a job and was traumatized by what he did and saw overseas. Two of his friends, fellow Marines, had died in an IED explosion. Maupin turned to heroin, and did not even think of seeking help or filing a disability claim.
He felt guilty because others suffered more. Plus, soldiers and Marines are conditioned to be strong.
“Who wants to be titled as broken? Especially when you see guys, the Vietnam veterans – and I’m not saying theirs was worse than ours or ours was worse than theirs – but you see these guys that are 60 years old, never put in a claim in their life and on a daily basis they were getting into firefights,” Maupin says.
Perhaps inevitably, there came a breaking point, when Maupin was sick, on the streets and alone, having alienated friends and family. He entered the Milwaukee VA for treatment and is now two years sober. He also broke down and sought compensation for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and back pain.
“It was something to, not be comfortable, but to be able to make it and start over. And not put the war behind me, but put the pain behind me,” he says.
But it took the VA more than a year to send Maupin his first check. That long wait has been the norm for thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While the VA doles out back pay for the delay, critics say some vets, in the meantime, develop addictions, and a staggering number commit suicide.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised that in 2015, no veteran will wait more than 125 days for a claim to be processed. On PBS’s NewsHour, Shinseki says President Obama has increased the VA budget to address the problem.
“For us to do the two things he asked us to do, which is make things better for veterans quickly, and so these are the short-term things, like claims, but then also put into place the long-term institutional changes that will continue to make this department a good service to veterans,” Shinseki says.
Among those long-term changes, is a transition from a paper-based system to an electronic one.
Beth McCoy is a deputy undersecretary. She says the agency has also zoned in on claims that have been pending for more than two years.
“And we have reduced that number from 67,000 down to under 200 right now. So that was something that we focused on the veterans everywhere that were waiting the longest,” McCoy says.
But the way the VA achieved that reduction is under scrutiny. Under a process called “claims brokering,” the VA sends pending cases to a handful of regional offices deemed high performing. Milwaukee is on that list.
McCoy admits the process may have increased wait times for the state’s vets.
“If Wisconsin veterans have had three people in line in the express lane in the past, maybe they have five people in line now. So yes, they may be waiting slightly longer, but it is not significantly longer,” she says.
If you examine the data, you find that in April of last year, when Milwaukee first started taking on cases from out-of-state, the office took an average of 182 days to process a claim. Now, it takes quite a bit longer – 285 days.
That number concerns Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore.
“They can’t afford to wait. They may lose their homes, lose their families, be denied stuff that they need with these claims hanging in limbo like that,” Moore says.
The state’s Congressional delegation is demanding assurances from the VA that Wisconsin vets will not be impacted further as the agency works to fulfill its 2015 promise.
Dale Maupin, the former Marine from Milwaukee says he’s skeptical the backlog will get resolved in such a short time, especially because claims may surge as the government downsizes the military. But he says the VA’s efforts and its promises offer some comfort that it has not forgotten veterans and their service.