SAN FRANCISCO -- Zacarias Catura is still waiting for a ruling on the disability claim he filed with the Oakland VA upon leaving the Army in 1992, and refiled in 2010. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Friday that he and other backlogged veterans will be getting an answer soon.
A news release on the VA's website announced that claims pending longer than one year will be expedited, and veterans will receive provisional decisions based on documentation currently on file. The message was slightly different at Friday's second annual VA claims Fix-It event, co-sponsored by Reps. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, to address the backlog of claims at the Oakland regional office.
There veterans were told by Speier, Lee and Willie Clark, the VA's western regional director, that all claims pending two years or longer will be resolved in the next 60 days.
"We want to clear all the one-year cases," Clark said when asked to reconcile the apparent disconnect between the VA's release and the information given to frustrated vets gathered at San Francisco's War Memorial Veterans Building. "But first we start with the 2-year-old cases."
After 21 years of waiting for his ruling, Catura, 57, regards any promise from the VA with skepticism.
"I put it in here," the Sunnyvale resident said, pointing to his left ear, then to his right ear, "and it comes out right here because it won't work."
His cynicism is understandable. Catura, who participated in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama in 1989, and the first Gulf War, said he applied for disability for hypertension, dermatitis, a back injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he has had two heart attacks and a triple bypass since 2010.
"Maybe they'll make a final determination when I end up in the cemetery," he said.
Speier, Lee, Clark and Douglas Bragg, head of the Oakland VA Regional Office, expressed optimism that the VA's aggressive new push would put a dent in the more than 800,000 claims pending nationwide.
"This suggests they are getting it," said Speier, a frequent critic of the VA.
Army veteran Bill Manich, a Santa Cruz resident, has his doubts.
"I won't hold my breath," said Manich, 63, a Vietnam veteran who in 2009 appealed his initial award of a 70 percent rating for PTSD and is still awaiting an answer. "I'd say it's a tall order."
The VA pays benefits to veterans who are diagnosed with at least a 30 percent disability rating, but the payments increase along with the rating percentage.
San Francisco's Elvin Herbert, an Air Force veteran who in 2011 appealed a VA denial of his claim for PTSD, found no comfort in the VA's announcement.
"I don't believe it," he said. "The people they have rating you don't know their jobs. They're not rating you right. I've got Agent Orange (exposure), and I have a 30 percent rating. I had quadruple bypass, I have a stent, I've got emphysema, and I've never smoked a day in my life. And they give me 30 percent."
Both Bragg and Clark restated their goal, issued at the first Fix-It event in May, of eliminating the Oakland VA backlog and achieving 98 percent accuracy by 2015. Once again it got a lukewarm reaction from Lee and Speier.
"Too many retirees will never live to see that date," Lee said.
"Based on past performance," Speier said, "that's not going to happen."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.