Virtually every veteran claimant has a similar frustration with the slow pace of the VA claims process. The picture is of claims files stacked in the Winston-Salem, NC regional office, so many that the structural integrity of the building is in question, the weight thought to be too much for the floor structure to bear!
Winston-Salem has so many claims (over one million) that the RO staff there has reportedly been instructed to stop working on anything except emergency appeals (dying veterans) and focus until October 1 solely on looking at new claims that have never been looked at.
The story is the same all over the VA system. In Los Angeles, the backlog is so great that even if no new claims were filed beginning now, it would still take three years to clear the backlog. In Chicago 21,299 veterans awaited initial response to claims filed as of August 2012; average wait time for such response is 361 days; average time to initial decision is 1,528 days – that’s 4.2 years!
Between accumulated backlog of Vietnam era veterans and the newer claims coming in from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, the system is backing up much faster than it can discharge claims. Apart from the sheer numbers of claims, the VA is hobbled by a slow antiquated system of paper files. Because the paper claims file has to be used to do most anything on the claim, only one thing can be done at a time: if a VA examiner or the Court has the file for review, the RO will not be doing anything. VA is working on converting to an electronic system, but a quick look at the photo above suggests how enormous an undertaking such a conversion will be.
What can be done? By the agency, not much, and what it could do, you probably don’t want it to do. In the past, when VA has started incentive programs to speed claims processing, what typically happened is that staffers trying to meet the incentives dealt with claims the quickest way – by denying them. This practice did nothing to improve the quality of claims evaluation. Only a major expenditure by Congress could begin to really address the problem, and it is no secret that the nation has enormous debt. Even if Congress were to appropriate the huge sum of money necessary to hire more staff and acquire additional space and equipment, it would take years to ramp up.
What can a veteran do? Again, the answer is not much. But there are a few things. First, don’t add to the problem. This does not mean not to file a claim, but if you do file a claim, make sure it is legitimate – don’t keep VA from processing worthwhile claims by submitting bogus claims that it also has to deal with.
Second, have your claim supported – the basics of claims are simple: to establish service connection there must be a (1) current disability that is (2) causally related to (3) some event in service; if you don’t have evidence proving all three, you’ll be denied. To get a higher rating you have to have evidence that your condition is worse than it is currently rated; you’ll likely need medical evidence to support that. VA is required to locate and obtain medical and service records, but you can request them yourself and get them more quickly.
Third, respond promptly to requests from VA, but do not re-submit the same material over and over. This just bulks up the claims file, making it more time-consuming and difficult for VA to find anything.
Fourth, don’t waste your time and VA’s time with rude or abusive phone calls or letters. While VA has weak links like any government bureaucracy, most VA employees are trying their best in extremely difficult circumstances. This doesn’t mean you have to put up quietly with foolishness, but when you call errors to VA’s attention, do it in crisp, clear language that is respectful, to the point, and helps VA see its error and rectify it.
Finally, while there are not many tools for pushing a system like this to move faster, the law does provide a method for remedying the most outrageous delays. There is a procedure that tries to get the Court to step in and order the agency to do something; it will only do so in cases of extreme delay, e.g. no activity at all for a year. Consult your legal representative about this.
UPDATE (11/5/2012, 15:19): In working with “The HERO Project” we found something our readers might be interested in. It’s an interactive map tracking wait time for Veterans Disability Claims with some telling statistics. Definitely worth the click: Interactive Veterans Disability Claims Wait Time Map
Veterans Benefits Claims, Veterans Benefits Legislation