Disabled veterans wait for action on Oakland VA backlog

Veteran Ben Curtis is photographed at the War Memorial Veterans Building on Monday, May 21, 2012 in San Francisco, Calif.   (Aric Crabb/Staff)

Veteran Ben Curtis is photographed at the War Memorial Veterans Building on Monday, May 21, 2012 in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

Ben Curtis was one of hundreds of disabled veterans who attended a Department of Veterans Affairs Fix-It event in San Francisco in May.

Sponsored by Bay Area Reps. Barbara Lee and Jackie Speier, it was aimed at reducing the crushing backlog of disability claims — some outstanding for years — in the Oakland regional office.

Like most veterans who were seen by claims representatives that day, Curtis was told he would receive an update within 60 days.

Sixty days later:

“I got a letter,” said Curtis, a Rodeo resident and Army veteran who served in Vietnam and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes, heart problems and pain in both feet. “They don’t have any good news at all. They’re talking about the amount of backlog they have.”

Chris Munich, left, and his dog General Eisenhower sit at a table with Veterans Affairs supervisor James England, right, during a claims meeting May 21 in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

Chris Munich, left, and his dog General Eisenhower sit at a table with Veterans Affairs supervisor James England, right, during a claims meeting May 21 in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

Curtis is one up on Oakland’s Chris Munich, a former Marine who served in Iraq.

“They didn’t send me a letter,” said Munich, who is seeking an upgrade for his post-traumatic stress disorder claim. “I was contacted by Barbara Lee’s office to see how things are going. I’m pretty much where I was before the big media circus — just waiting on my claim like everybody else.”

May’s Fix-It event was in response to a report by the VA’s inspector general that documented a backlog of 32,500 claims at the Oakland office and an average wait time of 320 days — 33 percent higher than at the other 56 VA facilities nationwide. In addition, the report noted a 39 percent error rate in claims inspected.

Lee and Speier attended. So did Oakland VA Director Douglas Bragg and Western Regional Director Willie Clark, who incurred the wrath of a ballroom full of angry disabled veterans. VA representatives were available to review veterans’ claims. More than 200 veterans showed up; fewer than half were processed even though the event was extended 90 minutes.

It ended before Walnut Creek’s Peter Plante, a Vietnam War veteran, was able to see a claims representative. He left his paperwork and later received a letter from the VA, which he followed up with a phone call.

“They said, yes, they had my claim,” said Plante, who filed for a knee replacement, “and one-quarter of it had been processed in the past year. They have to request records from the surgeon, the hospital, rehab and my primary doctor.”

Plante also heard from Richard Steffen, Speier’s district director, who told him the VA was going to try to process Vietnam veterans as quickly as possible.

“Other than that,” Plante said, “I don’t have a lot of hope.”

According to figures released by Lee’s office, the Oakland backlog for the week of June 25 was 33,923 cases, compared with an average of 14,835 in the other 56 U.S.-based facilities. Of the Oakland backlog, 29,512 cases (87 percent) had been pending for more than 125 days.

In an email, Lee noted that the Oakland office was closed during June for efficiency training.

“Since our meeting in May, I am pleased that the Oakland Regional Office conducted office-wide training for claims processing,” Lee wrote. “I am hopeful that this will correct some of the issues identified in the inspector general’s report and help reduce the wholly unacceptable claims backlog at this office.”

Lee wrote that she has requested bimonthly meetings with members of the Oakland VA “to ensure that our veterans are receiving the timeliness, accuracy and efficiency that they deserve.”

Curtis isn’t holding his breath.

“My feeling is that I just have to go on with my life and not worry too much about them not following through,” he said.

“If it’s taken me this long,” said Munich, who has been waiting two years for resolution, “what about the World War II vet? He’ll probably be dead before he gets his claim back. There’s got to be a quicker way to do this.”

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