Veterans, politicians and advocates seethed with anger Friday upon hearing the average waiting time at the Oakland facility that processes disability claims for all of Northern California's returning soldiers is nearly a year.
"It has to be reviewed and there are not enough people to do it. If we have to outsource it, then ... do it," said Mike Conklin, CEO of Sentinels of Freedom, a San Ramon-based nonprofit which finds jobs, housing and mentoring for severely wounded veterans. "It is absolutely ridiculous."
As of last month, veterans' claims took an average of 320 days to get processed at the Oakland regional facility, compared with an average of 241 days at the other 56 facilities nationwide, according to the VA's own figures. On average, the forms aren't even seen by an employee at the Oakland regional facility for 125 days.
The VA inspector general's report, issued Thursday, also found 39 percent of 90 disability claims inspected were incorrectly processed, and of the eight major office functions inspected in Oakland, only five were in compliance.
After the report's release, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, set up a public forum May 21 in San Francisco where the Oakland VA director and the VA's Western regional director will explain the processing slowdown and efforts to fix it. VA staff will also be on hand to answer individual claim questions at the public town hall meeting.
"Men and women who served our country have been subjected to prolonged delays that have prevented them from receiving the benefits they deserve," Speier said Friday. "We're going to identify what parts of the process aren't working, based on the statements of veterans with outstanding claims. The VA will be ready to correct records and to get claims moving again. Congressional staff and service organizations will also be available to help veterans with claims issues."
Calls to the Veterans Affairs press office Friday were not returned.
World War II veteran Jack Wyckoff just wants dental coverage to replace his rotted teeth.
The 88-year-old Campbell resident only discovered in 2008 he was entitled to benefits and has received incrementally larger and larger checks. He gets $1,200 a month, but it's been a battle waiting to hear back from the Oakland office after he refiled last September for 100 percent disability coverage.
"I have troubles a lot of times trying to get through to them," said the Air Force veteran, who has battled combat fatigue and other psychological issues since leaving the military. "And I usually just get the runaround."
Army veteran Kelly Thomas saw this newspaper's front-page story Friday about the VA report, but didn't have enough money to buy a copy. Thomas, 48, slept on the floor of an Oakland apartment until recently, when a friend bought her some furniture. Formerly homeless, the nine-year Army veteran can barely afford the $50 a month rent she must pay through a veterans Section 8 program. She has no family, and her medical condition and lack of transportation make most temporary work options impossible, she said.
She had asthma and a club foot when she enlisted in the Army, and both conditions worsened during her service and now prevent her from finding work, Thomas said. The VA denied any benefit payments to her in August 2009, but an appeal is on the books -- though she was told most of her medical records are now missing.
"I'm appalled that I served my country, and then they served me to the dogs," she said. "I've been hungry and homeless. I've been through it all."
Conklin, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C. where he spent two weeks at Walter Reed Army Medical Center interviewing injured veterans for his program, said the VA needs to fix the problem since about 200,000 troops will return home the next 18 months with the planned reduction in forces.
"The demand is huge and it's not going away; in fact it's growing," said Conklin, who believes the VA must outsource services if it cannot move soldiers through. "They want to get home, they want to get a job, they want to go to school and they want to get on with their lives."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
Rep. Jackie Speier,
D-San Mateo, will host a
forum from 1 to 4 p.m. May 21 at the War Memorial Building in San Francisco. Also in attendance will be the Oakland VA regional office director and the VA's western regional director, as well as VA staff to discuss veterans' individual claims. Veterans should sign up for the meeting in advance to get claims reviewed beforehand. To sign up, call Speier's office at 650-342-0300 or email her district director, Richard Steffen, at email@example.com. Visit www.speier.house.gov for more information.
Follow the stories of veterans of the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan and find resources for veterans at www.americanhomecomings.com.
if you go
What: Public forum on Oakland VA regional
When: 1 to 4 p.m., May 21
Where: The War Memorial Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., Room 207, San Francisco