New advocate • Utah veteran to help press V.A. to deal with claims backlog.
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When Ike Hall got out of the Army in 2007, he waited just less than nine months for the Department of Veterans Affairs to agree that he'd been permanently disabled in the Iraq war.
The time it took VA to decide his claim and begin paying Hall a little more than $500 a month felt like forever.
And that's why Hall, now settled into a job he loves at a digital publishing company, is getting involved in the campaign to press the federal government to do better.
"It's taking too long, and it's continually getting worse," says Hall, of Murray, one of the 45 veterans recently trained for grassroots advocacy by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
As of the end of February, the VA's average wait time for disability claims was 280 days nationally and 306 days for the Salt Lake regional office.
The VA is even further than it was last year from reaching its goal of deciding all claims quickly. Nationally, the backlog is 885,068 pending claims, and more than 69 percent of them are older than 125 days.
By the same measure, the proportion of older claims has soared to 76 percent at the Salt Lake City VA Regional Office.
Veterans groups like IAVA are turning up the heat on Congress and the Obama administration to demand VA process claims faster.
Two weeks ago, IAVA "stormed" Washington to meet with senators and representatives and to deliver to President Barack Obama a petition signed by tens of thousands of U.S. citizens. The group wants Obama to appoint a presidential commission. Hall was part of that effort, though back home in Utah, working the email banks.
The campaign is getting attention; Jon Stewart blasted Obama's VA in an episode of The Daily Show, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki made a rare appearance on a Sunday talk show to explain the backlog and reiterate his promise that the VA will catch up by 2015.
"No one should have to wait for their claims to be processed," Shinseki told CNN's Candy Crowley.
Hall hopes to meet with Utah's congressional delegation and begin working with other veterans to press for quicker action.
"We're leaving too many people behind right now," says the 32-year-old father of two sons, who is considered 40 percent disabled. He required knee surgery because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and suffered traumatic brain injury when he was hit by a brick thrown from a tall building. He served two tours as an Army police officer in Baghdad.
More claims than ever • While the VA has a multi-pronged plan to eliminate the backlog including switching from paper to electronic records the fact is the number of disability claims is skyrocketing.
Veterans Affairs in recent years opened the door for veterans to claim an array of maladies associated with Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, Gulf War illness and combat-related PTSD.
Moreover, the military drawdown means thousands of men and women are leaving the military and entering the VA. And after 12 years of war, 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking compensation for their service injuries.
The newest veterans claim compensation for an average eight to 10 medical issuesdouble the number filed by Vietnam veterans, in part because medical advances helped more of them survive injuries that would have killed their fathers.
That makes the medical and administrative review more complex than ever, says Terry Schow, executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs.
Schow believes the current "piling on" the VA by politicos and the media is unfair; he has seen more progress under Shinseki than in any VA administration in the 26 years he's been in veterans advocacy, Schow says.
"Beating up on them is not the answer," says Schow. "We need to realize the sheer number we're dealing with."
The VA processed more than 1 million claims each of the past three years, although those numbers were eclipsed by new claims.
Half of the veterans with pending claims nationwide already receive some form of disability benefits, notes Karl Pfanzelter, assistant director of the Salt Lake City VA Regional Office. Typically, they are filing because of new medical issues or to secure a higher disability rating.
Don Reed, supervisor for the Disabled American Veterans service office, says wait times for veterans are longer than he has seen in the two years he has been in Salt Lake City.
The DAV, The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and The Military -Order of the Purple Heart are service organizations that help veterans put together and bird-dog their claims.
Veterans get frustrated waiting, says Reed. "They do get into financial difficulties and, due to the disability, they can't bring in the money they once could," says Reed.
The DAV is pressing veterans to file what are called Fully Developed Claims, with all available supporting evidence, such as private treatment records, in the file from the start.
Such claims are decided in 101 days on average, Reed says.
"Even if we get the backlog completed, what we want the VA to focus on is getting the rating done right the first time," says Reed. "Accuracy matters a lot."
Becoming an advocate • Hall, the former MP who served two tours in Baghdad, says it took him six years and a lot of life lessons to get to the point he wants to advocate for other veterans.
He and his wife divorced shortly after he left the Army, although they live near enough to each other that their boys, 8 and 12, can run from their father's condo, where they live, to visit their mother.
Hall worked for a time as a security guard, and studied culinary arts at the Art Institute in Draper. Although cooking remains his passion, Hall jumped at the chance to work for StoryRock, a Salt Lake City company that helps schools, military units and other groups tell their stories electronically. He is the production manager.
Working with the IAVA for Utah veterans, he says, "is going to take a lot of my free time."
VA disability claims
Some 20,000 Utah veterans out of a population of 167,000 veterans receive disability payments from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Those amount to $30 million every month, according to the Salt Lake City VA Regional Office.
The proportion of disability claims older than 125 days the target maximum wait time has soared at the Salt Lake office in the past year, from less than 59 percent to nearly 76 percent. That means that 16,849 of the 22,292 claims as of last Saturday were more than four months old.