Iowa veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq wait, on average, more than 10 months for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process their health and benefits claims.
Nearly 7,000 disabled veterans overseen by the Des Moines Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Office are waiting an average of 313 days on claims across the state, VA records show. That’s 18 percent longer than a year-and-a-half ago, although records show that since 2000 there are fewer veterans in the state.
The problem is demand. It keeps going up as veterans return from duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, putting stress on the regional VA office and those who help the veterans obtain their disability benefits.
“I’ve had guys wait 13 or 14 months before even hearing anything,” said David “Woody” Woods, director of veterans affairs for Scott County. His local organization is not part of the VA.
“We have a weekly meeting with (the VA) in Des Moines,” he said earlier this month, “and last week they completed 650 cases. But another 1,500 came in the same week.”
One of the veterans Woods works with is Jason Kerr. Kerr keeps a 25-pound stack of records from his 16-month deployment in Iraq in his pickup. The pile keeps growing.
The 38-year-old DeWitt machine-gun operator is not surprised his fellow veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are waiting so long for benefits to help cover their combat-related injuries.
Kerr waited five years.
“Everything I went to them for was found to be true,” Kerr said about the challenges he faced, proving he was entitled to benefits. “But this battle was harder to fight than the one in Iraq.”
The Center for Investigative Reporting has been collecting wait times this year for every VA regional center in the country for a series of reports about those waits. The times are reported by the VA.
IowaWatch, a non-profit news organization that is part of the Investigative News Network that includes the Center for Investigative Reporting; The Gazette; the Quad-City Times; The Hawk Eye in Burlington and the Fort Dodge Messenger used that data to investigate the waits in Iowa.
AMONG LONGEST WAITS
The 313-day wait time at the Des Moines regional office is among the longest in the Midwest. Only Chicago, at 458 days, and St. Louis, at 321 days, have longer waits. The national average is 277 days.
In addition, seven of every 10 benefit claims in Iowa are taking more than 125 days to process, about the same as the national average, data as of Dec. 17 show. Those who appeal a benefits denial can expect to wait more than 3 1/2 years — 1,321 days, on average — for resolution, the data show.
The reports show accuracy, on the other hand, is 92.5 percent for the Des Moines office in the last 12 months, well above the national average of 86.4 percent.
The VA is well aware of the complaints, not just in Iowa but nationally.
“We recognize that too many veterans are waiting too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” the VA said in a prepared statement from the national headquarters that Joyleen Maravilla, the public affairs officer at the Des Moines VA Regional Office, provided. “That’s unacceptable, and that is why VA is building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system.”
Maravilla said 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking compensation for combat-related injuries, an all-time high.
She said that’s partly the result of VA efforts to make veterans more aware of benefits to which they may be entitled. The Des Moines regional office provides about $260 million in benefits to 270,000 Iowa veterans and oversees more than 100 employees.
Maravilla said new VA hires who have gone through a redesigned training program are completing 150 percent more claims per day at a 30 percent more accurate rate. All 56 regional VA offices plan to move from paper-based claims to a completely digital format by the end of 2013, which department officials hope will cut processing times in half.
“I know they’re trying,” Jodi Tymeson, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, said about efforts VA officials in the Des Moines center are making to hire and train more employees to deal with claims. “They don’t like the backlog.”
Iowa’s state veterans affairs department is part of a vast network that helps veterans with several matters, including working through the bureaucratic federal VA system that handles pension, health and disability claims.
“What we hope is that veterans feel they at least can talk to someone instead of an 800 number,” Tymeson said.
Veterans groups, such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and local veterans commissions, also help those returning from overseas duty. In some cases they have helped speed the process of getting veterans benefits.
Tymeson’s office has three service officers, as do all 99 counties and various veterans groups. They deal with state programs in addition to helping veterans obtain federal VA benefits.
Ken Dettbarn, 46, of rural Elkader, a retired Army chief warrant officer who suffered debilitating injuries in Iraq, said he didn’t experience any difficulty or delays following his application for disability benefits.
“I had an advocate who walked me through all the steps,” said Dettbarn, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, punctured lungs and more than a dozen broken bones in a Humvee rollover during his second tour in Iraq.
That advocate was Ralph Rosenberger, a state services officer employed by the VFW to help injured veterans navigate the paperwork required to secure disability benefits, said Dettbarn, whose nearly fatal injuries have affected his moods, memory, physical dexterity and comprehension.
Although he no longer can hold a job, Dettbarn said his family is doing all right financially with his benefits and the salary of his wife, Linda, a nurse.
Rosenberger since has retired, replaced by Richard Davis of North Liberty, a 22-year Army veteran whose office is in the Iowa City VA Health Care System.
“When the injury is obvious (as was the case with Dettbarn), there is hardly ever any delay in disability benefits,” said Davis, who noted that the American Legion also funds a similar position at the Iowa City VA Health Care System medical center.
Delays typically occur with veterans who suffer less obvious injuries such as concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder, Davis said. “They have to be researched and verified, which takes longer,” he said.
It often takes almost two years for some veterans applying for VA disability benefits in Webster County, in western Iowa, to learn if their claim is approved.
“Typically, we tell everybody 13 to 16 months,” said Russ Naden, director of the Webster County Veterans Affairs Commission. “They’re backed up, I know that,” Naden said of the Des Moines office.
Local veterans seeking benefits generally cite four to five injuries or conditions that were caused or aggravated by their military service, Naden said.
Traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder are common. But Naden also sees veterans claiming joint and back problems caused by, among other things, getting in and out of military vehicles while wearing heavy gear.
Jake Long, a 27-year-old combat veteran, has experienced delays at the Iowa City VA Health Care System getting treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder. But he knows that likely will be nothing compared to the wait he will face while anticipating word on his disability benefits.
“It’s just known all across the military. When you put your paperwork in through VA claims, don’t expect it for probably at least a year, a year to 18 months, usually,” Long said.
Long, a Burlington native serving in the Army Reserve, said he expects a struggle, including having to appeal, to get the rating he deserves for his disabilities. “You’ve got to fight tooth and nail for every percentage you get. Like I said, they’re stingy with it,” Long said.
Grandview resident Jon Murphy would have considered himself reasonably lucky, if his wait time went anywhere close to as quickly as Long is expecting.
Murphy, 44, is a non-combat veteran but said his chronic back pain and long-term anxiety disorder are related to his service in the U.S. Navy in the 1980s through around 1990. Murphy said he first noticed his back pain while working as a nurse in 2002, but he started the process of seeking VA disability benefits in 2009.
Murphy wound up homeless before he would get a rating on which he could survive.
“Never once in my life thought I’d ever be in this position,” Murphy said of being homeless for the past six months. “And I think if VA hadn’t messed up to begin with, during that nine-month period of time, where nothing — absolutely nothing — happened and they lost my files over and over again, I think I might have been able to avoid it.
“But there is no responsibility, and no accountability when it comes to the VA.” (story continues below map)
Murphy said he filed his initial paperwork in August 2010, but the VA recognizes the first filing as March 2011.
Murphy learned on Dec. 14 — just in time to buy his kids Christmas presents — that his disability benefit had been increased from an initial 10 percent rating to 60 percent.
He has received only notification of the award and a small amount of what he’s owed. He said he would wait to receive the full reward before he could say whether it will be the end of his fight with the VA over his disability.
PROOF OF SERVICE
Kerr, the Scott County veteran carrying the stacks of documents in his five-year fight for benefits, is a former hotel manager who now works as a veterans’ representative for the state. The first hurdle he had to jump was proving he was in Iraq with the Army.
Although he was knocked unconscious in a bomb blast, the Army kept no record of the incident.
Four of his five claims are settled now, and he’s preparing to file another.
Kerr is one of about 1,100 veterans who have gone to Woods’ office in Scott County for help.
“They come back after months of carrying their gear, weapons and ammunition through the mountains or the desert while wearing their body armor. You can’t complain about it while you’re deployed, or they’ll hold you over,” Woods said.
“When they ask if you’re hurt, you learn not to raise your hand.”
This story was compiled by reports from Robert Maharry of IowaWatch, Barb Ickes of the Quad-City Times, Orlan Love of The Gazette, Christinia Crippes of the Burlingon Hawk Eye and Bill Shea of the Fort Dodge Messenger