By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES – Every day is a battle for Ottumwa resident Steve Anderson.
The once healthy 39-year-old Gulf War veteran struggles with multiple illnesses: irritable bowel syndrome, depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and back problems. He gets easily confused and can’t remember simple things. Small tasks seem like huge obstacles, overwhelming barriers.
But Anderson’s battle is even more complex, even more troubling.
Doctors with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs say his medical problems stem from exposure to chemicals during 10 years in the Navy. Despite that, it’s taken the same federal department 12 years to rule on his claim for full disability benefits, he said.
Meanwhile, his family of five tries to make ends meet on the $1,902 he gets in partial disability payments. If his current claim is approved, it would mean an extra nearly $1,000 a month, he said.
“I went overnight from being healthy to sliding down a slope I have been on ever since,” Anderson said. “There is frustration at every turn for me. It’s not going to get better any time soon. That knowledge is enough to drive you batty. I’m always on the verge of a breakdown.”
Anderson is not alone in his struggles.
More than 7,400 Iowa veterans are awaiting a response to their disability claims, which on average will take 272 days to process, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and Center of Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization. The number of claims has grown by nearly 22 percent in less than two years. The wait time has increased more than 30 percent, the figures show.
If a veteran’s claim is denied and appealed, it takes an average of 1,549 days for a ruling.
“They are so far behind it’s pathetic,” said Dan Gannon, a Vietnam veteran who helps others file claims and serves on the Iowa Commission of Veteran Affairs. “A veteran comes in and they don’t get an answer for 15 months? That’s wrong. We have veterans out there who need financial help because of their disabilities, and they have to wait that long.”
“The saying among veterans is I’ll be dead before I get my claim. There might be some truth to that,” Gannon, 66, added.
Veteran disability claims nationally have exploded in recent years, as troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq survive injuries they wouldn’t have before and come back with more complex health issues. Also, more Vietnam veterans are being diagnosed with problems related to exposure to the chemical Agent Orange, Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently told a congressional committee.
Nationally, the federal department has yet to process 820,514 claims, an almost 7 percent increase in the past year. It takes an average 257 days to receive a response, a wait time that has increased 31 percent in the past year. Appeals take an average 1,299 days, federal figures and the Center for Investigative Reporting show.
But those numbers don’t accurately reflect wait times, because they don’t factor in the time it takes before a claim is reviewed, Gannon said.
“It’s disgraceful that our nation’s heroes have to wait so long to get the benefits they need and deserve,” Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who represents Iowa’s First Congressional District and serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Wednesday in a written statement.
“I will continue to push the VA and make sure they have the resources they need so we can cut down the unacceptable wait time that veterans currently experience,” he added.
Iowa’s surge in claims prompted the regional office to broker some out to other states with lighter caseloads, said Rod Derringer, a staff assistant at the U.S. Veterans Affairs regional office in Des Moines. He did not specify where they were shipped.
The state is one of 16 to shift to a new, electronic system meant to expedite the claims process and better train staff to make accurate rulings. In just a few months, workers processed 17 percent more claims. That’s despite the additional training and transition, which often can initially delay the process, Derringer said.
The Des Moines office also received money for additional personnel. Derringer couldn’t say how many additional positions have been added.
But the efforts haven’t been enough to keep pace with the influx of disability filings, he said.
“My concern is when the wars are over with it will be less and less of a concern,” Gannon said. “It’s sad that they need wars to get people to care about veterans. You know why? Because it’s a vote. When you get around elections, politicians talk about vets. If there wasn’t an election they wouldn’t even be talking about it.”
Contact Sheena Dooley at firstname.lastname@example.org.