Two Florida congressmen are pushing the Department of Veterans Affairs for answers to the persistent backlog in disability claims at the St. Petersburg office, where they said “unacceptably long” wait times continue to hurt veterans in the state.
In a letter to a top VA official, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican from Sarasota, and Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from Jupiter, on the eastern side of the state, said they were deeply concerned about the waits at the regional office, which handles disability claims for veterans from throughout Florida.
Delays and backlogs in the VA’s disability system have bedeviled the department for years, and top officials have repeatedly told Congress and veterans they are working to solve the problem.
In the past couple of years, the situation has improved – although the numbers are far from where officials want them to be.
“It appears to me it hasn’t changed much,” Buchanan, whose congressional district includes Bradenton, said in an interview. “We have a million and a half people in Florida who are veterans, and I think it’s outrageous people have to wait 125 days to have their claim decided.”
His district is one of the most veteran-heavy in the country, ranking third among all districts for its share of older veterans.
That 125-day standard is the one set by the VA, which has a goal that by 2015 no claim takes longer than 125 days to decide.
As of now, there are 510,000 claims pending nationwide at the department, and 48 percent of them are older than 125 days, according to the most recent public data.
In the St. Petersburg regional office, there are about 28,000 claims pending, and 61 percent of them are older than 125 days. The department said Friday the numbers have dropped further in the past week.
The VA’s disability division has 56 regional offices, and according to VA data, the St. Petersburg office ranks first in the number of claims pending, first in number of claims older than 125 days, sixth in the percentage of older claims and 10th in the number of days each claim is pending.
The 125-day standard was strongly pushed by former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki before he resigned last year amid a widespread scandal involving problems in the VA’s health system. The number of pending claims and the number of 125-day old claims are both well below their levels of 2012.
The backlog has persisted because of the overwhelming number of claims from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, as well as those from older Vietnam veterans.
In addition, the VA – St. Petersburg specifically – has struggled with an antiquated records systems. In a review last year, the VA’s inspector general visited St. Petersburg and “observed that the file room was overfilled with records,” a resulting report said.
It continued: Due to a shortage of shelving units, “files were stored on end caps, on shelves built around the perimeter of the room, and in loose boxes stored against the outside walls of the room. As a result, RO personnel have encountered difficulties locating files.”
According to Anthony Hardie, national director of the Washington-based advocacy organization Veterans for Common Sense, the problems in the St. Petersburg office have existed for years.
“Veterans who are waiting on their claims to be approved should not have to suffer through the incompetence of the St. Pete regional office,” said Hardie, who lives in Bradenton; he was in Washington this week advocating on behalf of veterans.
Kerrie Witty, director of the St. Petersburg office, said changes have already been made in response to the inspector general’s report.
“We look very different today than we did a year ago,” Witty said. “What they found was a lot of paper files, and we had too many paper files for the filing system that we had at the time. . . . The problems that they found a year ago – they are completely resolved.”
Witty said 85 percent of completed claims each month are coming from older files, allowing the office to quickly reduce the backlog.
“We’re making progress,” she said. “I’m encouraged, I really am. I think we can do it.”
The long delays and the big backlog were things Lee F. Kichen of Sarasota saw during his work as a veterans’ advocate working for Veterans of Foreign Wars. As what’s known as a veterans service officer, Kichen was stationed inside the St. Petersburg regional office but represented veterans as they sought to properly file their claims.
“There was progress – they were moving in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not like VA was remaining stagnant. Any good idea they would check out. But it’s just the sheer volume of cases.”
“They need more people to handle the applications – but they don’t want to hire more people,” added Don Courtney, chairman of the Manatee County Veterans’ Council, a nonprofit coalition of 25 veterans’ organizations.
Murphy, the congressman from Jupiter, discovered the problem while reviewing constituent service case files from his first two years in office. And while VA officials have told him they are working to fix the problems, Murphy is withholding judgment.
“I’m confident they want to make changes. I know they are trying to,” he said in an interview. “I think the will is there, but I just want to see the results, and I’m not sold on those yet.”