By KIMBERLY HEFLING
WASHINGTON - The Veterans Affairs Department appears poised to hit a milestone it would rather avoid: 1 million claims to process.
The milestone approaches as the agency scrambles to hire and train new claims processors, which can take two years. VA officials are working with the Pentagon under orders from President Barack Obama to create by 2012 a system that will allow the two agencies to electronically exchange records, a process now done manually on paper.
Meanwhile, veterans, some of whom were severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to endure financial hardship while their claims are processed. They wait more than four months on average for a claim to be processed, and appealing a claim takes a year and a half on average.
Adding to the backlog are factors ranging from the complexity of processing mental health-related claims of Iraq veterans, to a change that made it easier for Vietnam veterans exposed to the Agent Orange herbicide to qualify for disability payments. The VA says it's receiving about 13 percent more claims today than it did a year ago.
The VA's Web site shows the department has more than 722,000 claims and more than 172,000 appeals it currently is processing, for a total of about 900,000. That is up from about 800,000 total claims in January, according to the site.
Since early 2007, the VA has hired 4,200 claims processors and with that has seen improvements in the number of claims it's processing. It's also working to modernize its system.
Last year, Congress passed legislation that sought to update the disability rating process. A hearing Thursday by a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee will look into whether the law's changes are being implemented and whether the VA will be able to handle a million claims.
Veterans advocates acknowledge there have been improvements in the claims process, but say it still is too cumbersome. They say some injured veterans from the recent wars are paying bills with credit cards, pending their first disability payments, at a time when it is challenging enough to recover from or adapt to their injuries.
"They keep talking about a seamless transition, but I can tell you I haven't seen it being very seamless," said John Roberts of Houston, who is national service director for the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project, which helps veterans such as David Odom, 29, of Haleyville, Ala.
Odom, a former Army staff sergeant who did three tours in Iraq, said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. With symptoms such as anxiety and anger, he finds it difficult to work. He said he's waited months to learn the outcome of an appeal that would give him higher compensation.
"It's added quite a bit of stress because I don't know what's going to happen. I want to know either way so I can figure out what my next step is," Odom said.
Former Marine Cpl. Patrick Murray, 25, of Arlington, Va., who was severely burned and had his right leg amputated after a roadside bomb explosion in 2006, considers himself fortunate. He got a job once he was discharged from the military, making for an easier wait as his case is processed.
"For someone that gets out of the military and doesn't have a job lined up, they have no income," said Murray, who works for a construction company. "They are sitting there making zero money, either racking up credit card bills or taking out loans, whatever it may be, all the while waiting."
Murray said the first claim he filed was lost. The second ended up at a VA office in Colorado, and the third was finally processed after a couple of months. It was mind-boggling, he said, to have spent 11 months in Walter Reed Army Medical Center and in outpatient care with stacks of medical files, only to find out he had to mail his records to the VA to prove he was injured.
"The biggest disappointment, I guess, is that it should be unnecessary," Murray said.
Ryan Gallucci, spokesman for the veterans group AMVETS, said his organization supports a law change that would make it less burdensome for a veteran to prove that an injury was from his time in war service. He said that may help with the claims process.
Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., who is chairing Thursday's hearing, said he's confident the claims process eventually will be improved.
"Veterans who are currently waiting, it can't come soon enough to them," Hall said.