Veterans frustrated by VA backlog descend on Bay Area ‘Fix-it’ event
SAN FRANCISCO — Chris Munich was part of the military force that invaded Iraq in 2003, which within nine months had toppled Iraq’s government.
Munich has been waiting almost two years for the Oakland Veterans Affairs office to consider his request to upgrade the rating on his disability for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve been rated 35 percent for PTSD,” said Munich, 30, who lives at his parents’ home in Oakland while pursuing a career as a chef. “It took them six months to get me paperwork. It just seems like a big circus. It doesn’t seem like anybody’s held accountable.”
Accountability was on the agenda Monday during a fix-it event at San Francisco’s War Memorial Building. It was sponsored by U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier and Barbara Lee in response to a recent VA inspector general’s report critical of the Oakland VA and its backlog of disability claims.
The event gave veterans a chance to meet with claims representatives, and more than 100 veterans preregistered. At least twice that many showed up — so many that the event was extended by 90 minutes.
Each veteran was promised an update within 60 days. Those who were not seen were given a priority form to complete and told they would be contacted within one week.
The event also gave veterans an opportunity to ask questions not only of Speier and Lee, but also of Douglas Bragg, head of the Oakland VA, and Willie Clark, the VA’s Western regional director.
“Who’s getting fired?” yelled one man after Speier was asked about the Oakland VA’s backlog of 35,000 cases.
“I think we need to hear from (Bragg and Clark) first,” Speier said, “then we’ll make an assessment.”
The IG report found the Oakland VA office to have the second-worst backlog among the nation’s benefit centers, with an average wait of nearly a year for processing. Ben Curtis, a Vietnam veteran from Rodeo, wasn’t surprised by the frustration expressed by the veterans in attendance.
“We all have to find ways of dealing with that frustration,” he said. “People have different levels of tolerance.”
Curtis has been dealing with the VA for 10 years. His most recent claim is for ongoing problems with his feet, heart, diabetes and PTSD. He is cautiously optimistic that Monday’s event will speed up the process.
“Words always come easy,” he said. “I’m looking for the outcome. We’ve got to see what the action is going to be. That’s what’s going to tell the story for all of these vets who are here today.”
Clark insisted that the Oakland VA has already implemented procedural changes that will improve its performance.
“Oakland is on the upswing,” he said. “Our 2015 goal is to have no claims pending for more than 120 days with a 98 percent accuracy rate.”
“2015 is too far out,” Lee shot back. “What do we have to do to move up that date?”
Shepard Berry, an Air Force veteran from San Francisco, suffers from partial hearing loss from serving around jet aircraft during Operation Desert Storm. He also suffers from severe jaw pain he says resulted from having his wisdom teeth extracted by a military dentist. Recently he was told his jaw condition is now accepted by the VA as a disability.
“But it’s been two years and I have gotten nothing,” said Berry, who was 210th in line to be processed. “Pending, pending, pending, pending for two years.”
He, too, expressed hope that the action by the congresswomen would help.
“I think they’re paying attention and they’re asking the questions that a lot of us are asking,” he said. “That guy (Clark) in there talking right now? All I hear is blah, blah, blah.”
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