WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Veterans wait nearly a year on average for their disability claims to get processed at the Oakland, Calif., regional center, according to a highly critical federal report released Thursday, leading one congressman to call the facility a bureaucratic "black hole."
The Oakland office, which processes benefits claims for veterans from Bakersfield, Calif., north to the Oregon border, had almost 32,500 claims pending an average of 269 days - 89 days longer than the national target time - when the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general visited in December. As of April, the wait for veterans had increased to 320 average days pending.
That compares to an average of 241 pending days last month at the other 56 facilities nationwide, according to statistics provided to the office of Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif.
The report 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.
"There are very high-performing regional centers," McNerney said by phone from Washington, D.C. "Ours is not.
"What's bothering me is that it has to come to this, where we have congressional hearings (and) bad press before getting any action," he said. "The veterans with disabling injuries, by and large, get taken care of pretty quickly; it's the ones on the margins who are depending on disability assistance that are affected, and their families."
McNerney said that at a recent Lodi town hall meeting, veterans complained about the long waits. "They feel like they are in a black hole," he said.
Vietnam War veteran Richard Carpino, 70, can attest to the logjam. The retired Lodi plumber spent more than seven years in the toxic boiler room of a Navy destroyer exposing himself to asbestos.
In 2000, a doctor found scar tissue and plaque on the outer lining of his lungs, common among veterans who worked in proximity to the carcinogen. Carpino filed a claim with the VA; his paperwork ended up at the Oakland facility where he spent more than a decade fighting for his proper disability pay.
After numerous denial letters, he approached McNerney's office in 2008. By June 2010, with his lung capacity about half of normal, Carpino applied for 100 percent disability, and included a letter from the congressman with the application. More than a year later, on Sept. 28, 2011, the VA awarded him the full coverage, including retroactive pay.
"Any time they would deny me and gave me the reason, I would go on to the computer and the VA files and find another reason that made me eligible," Carpino said. "It took me 11 years. Eleven years is too long to get compensated. We're trying to find a way to speed it up."
The 10 oldest Oakland claims had been pending for between 1,040 and 3,187 days, according to the report. The facility, with 269 full-time employees inside the Ron Dellums Federal Building in downtown Oakland, failed to follow VA policy and provide monthly reviews of claims older than a year, the report found.
A call to the VA press office Thursday was not immediately returned. But officials at the Oakland facility concurred with all the report's findings, and management said they have a plan to ensure that 95 percent of claims completed by July will be those pending more than one year.
As of last month, it took an average of 125 days before an Oakland VA employee first eyeballed a veteran's claim, according to McNerney's office.
Carpino said such long waits may dissuade returning soldiers from accessing the help they need.
"There are a lot of young guys coming out of Iraq that don't want to get involved in it and don't want to deal with the VA," he said. "A lot of guys are maimed so bad, they have no arms or legs and they have to fight for every last bit and that's not right."
Patrick Leary, a 65-year-old Vietnam War veteran from Pleasanton, filed a claim for treatment of ringing in the ears in May 2011 _ sustained, he believes, during his years piloting helicopter gunships. In January, he found out his claim was denied because the VA claimed helicopter pilots were not exposed to much noise - although he says the VA never alerted him - and he appealed. He had his first hearing test last month, and his claim is still pending.
"If you've got to wait for your disability check, that's a problem," Leary said. "Your first disability check is retroactive to the day you filed, but depending on the severity of your malady, you may not live to get it."
The Oakland VA facility has pledged to increase staffing in critical areas, boost training and advance software to speed up and improve its claims process, according to the report.
"The thing I want to see is concrete results, not talk about plans to do this and that," McNerney said. "It's a disgrace that we're sitting and talking about this today."