Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a series of stories from the Washington Examiner about benefit claims backlog at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
WASHINGTON — Mike Montgomery earned what he is owed the hard way in 13 months of combat in Vietnam where for days at a time the former Marine huddled in monsoon-swept rice paddies raked by enemy gunfire and soaked in Agent Orange by U.S. aircraft.
Since his 1968 discharge, Montgomery has fought the Department of Veterans Affairs over multiple health problems linked to his military service.
The VA initially rated him as partially disabled.
But in 2010, his legs started going numb from the knees down. Now all Montgomery feels below his knees is pain.
Four doctors told him the condition was likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange and treatments he received for seven malaria bouts he endured during his service.
In June, Montgomery filed paperwork to change his disability rating to reflect the new condition. All he’s heard since from the VA is two form letters noting the delay.
“I can’t make other people do their job and I can’t make things work any faster,” said Montgomery, part of a military family that included uncles who served in World War I and his sons’ Iraq and Afghanistan tours.
“I think they just want me to get frustrated and say screw it and walk away and forget about it. When I wake up in the middle of the night screaming, it’s hard to forget about,” he said.
Montgomery is among the more than 1.1 million veterans trapped in bureaucratic limbo waiting for VA to process claims for disability and pension benefits earned through military service. Many will wait years for an answer.
Almost 900,000 of those cases are stuck in one of VA’s 57 regional offices, where claims workers determine whether the veteran’s maladies are service-connected and warrant compensation through a monthly stipend.
Another quarter-million cases are on appeal, a process that typically takes more than three years before decisions are made.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged in 2009 that the agency’s mission is to process all benefits claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
But things have only gotten worse. Four years ago, an average of 161 days elapsed before VA issued an initial rating on a disability application.
Today, it takes an average of 273 days — more than nine months — and waits are often longer than that. More than 70 percent of cases currently in the system have been there beyond Shinseki’s 125-day pledge.
When the rating decision is finally made, odds are it is incorrect, according to agency statistics and multiple investigations by the VA’s Inspector General.
The claims backlog has spiraled even as VA’s budget went from $98 billion in 2009 to $140 billion today.
Similarly, VA’s staff increased from 297,234 in 2009 to 324,498 in 2012, a 9 percent expansion.
“This is a tremendous problem,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “It does show that just throwing dollars and people at the problem won’t solve it.”
Mistakes in the initial rating decision often doom veterans to years of additional waiting on appeals, first through the agency’s internal board and then in the courts.
That’s assuming the board renders a final decision the first time it hears the case.
In nearly half the cases, claims are returned to regional office for more work because of errors or incomplete information.
Then it takes an average of more than 14 months to get such cases back before the board.
So Montgomery and a million other veterans are left to wait.
“I’m trying to be optimistic and say maybe they’re busy,” he said. “Maybe they don’t give a damn.”