Bakersfield area veterans waiting, and waiting, for benefits
The Bakersfield Californian
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — U.S. Marine Corps veteran Eric Brannon wasn't hit by live ammo or injured by an improvised explosive device. The 36-year-old Bakersfield man was badly hurt more than a dozen years ago when a rack of machine guns came crashing down on top of him while he was on active duty. His back and knees have never been the same.
"I used to work on the roads, but I can't really do that work anymore," he said.
So Brannon has returned to school and works part-time for $8 an hour at the Kern County Veterans Service Department.
His injury was service-related, so Brannon applied for an upgrade to his modest 10 percent disability rating from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That was Aug. 10, 2010.
More than two years later, he's still waiting for an answer from the VA.
According to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the average wait for a veteran who files a claim with the VA Los Angeles Regional Office, which serves Bakersfield, is 363 days. That's an increase of 39 percent over the prior 1.3 years, the center reported this past week.
"I don't know what's going on down there," Brannon said of the claims processing system in L.A. "I'm pretty patient, but this is ridiculous."
What's going on is a 26.5 percent increase in the number of disability claims since spring of last year, according to the center's analysis. And a badly clogged claims-processing system is the result, said Mike Penney, director of county veterans services, which helps vets navigate the sometimes difficult waters of the federal VA system.
"There's a huge backlog of cases," Penney said. And the VA can't keep up.
"L.A. tells me the turnover rate (for claims processors) is really extreme because of the pressure," Penney said. "One guy told me, 'I hire 10 and 20 leave.'"
The local veteran outpatient clinic referred all questions to the VA's public affairs office in Los Angeles. The Veteran Benefits Administration is the arm of the VA that processes claims, but the spokesman for the L.A. office was not available this week.
The Center for Investigative Reporting noted that the VA did not respond to numerous email and telephone inquiries seeking comment about the geographic inequities or about why some offices are doing so much worse than others.
Bill Potter, an officer with Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 97 in Bakersfield, said a higher-up from the VA in Los Angeles visited Bakersfield a few months ago to address the issue of long waits for veterans applying for disability benefits.
"He started off with an apology," Potter said.
Still, Potter noted that he doesn't hear a lot of complaints from local veterans. Neither does Wayne Wright, commander of the VFW's District 9, which covers several posts in Kern County.
Both men said they believe the VA in Los Angeles is working under very difficult circumstances — including the daunting increase in claims — and responding with appropriate attention and good intentions.
"Actually, the guys I talk to have been very pleased with the response they have gotten," Wright said.
But do old-school veteran advocacy groups like the VFW have broad insight into what's happening with younger vets?
Former Army medic Chuck Cartwright, 35, enlisted in 1993 and suffered a back injury in 1998 during a physical training exercise. He was medically discharged in 1999.
Then he did what a lot of military types do.
"Initially you get out and you do the old suck it up," Cartwright said.
But nerve damage to his back made it impossible to ignore as the years began piling up.
"I've spent thousands of dollars of my own money on treatment," he said.
He filed a claim in December 2010.
"I called last week. They said call us again in 60 days," Cartwright said. "What are you going to do? Argue?"
That was after calling the 800-number for claims processing and waiting on hold for 1 hour, 31 minutes before finally hanging up in frustration. The next day he was able to get through — after waiting 47 minutes — "all just to hear you gotta wait another two months," Cartwright said.
Sgt. Major Jason Geis, 41, will finish up his "20" this October. After that, Geis will be a civilian for the first time since he was 21.
These days, he said, the Army is pushing hard for active-duty soldiers with medical issues to complete their VA claim applications before they are discharged. That way there are no questions about whether any condition is service-related.
But even Geis is dealing with the ideosyncrasies of the massive bureaucracy. His recent move from Texas to Bakersfield has caused potential interruptions in his medical coverage.
Geis has 24 claims, including the titanium plate and screws in his left arm, an injury to his right knee from a parachute jump, problems with his lower back requiring surgery, tinnitus in his ear and post-traumatic stress disorder, dating back to serving 14 months in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
The VA has to document each claim by poring over medical records, Army service records and by scheduling and reviewing the results of medical exams. It's a huge amount of research and documentation, complicated by the VA's out-of-date record keeping system.
"When you leave the Army, your medical records are all digital," Geis said. "When you get to the VA, it's all a paper system."
Print it out, Geis said, and his records fill a box with thousands of pages of information.
"Imagine those claims people going through all that," he said.
Even with his head start, Geis doesn't expect to have his claims fully processed anytime soon.
"It's a very cumbersome system," he said.
That's putting it lightly.