WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama spoke Saturday at the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Orlando, he touted recent improvements his administration has made in addressing the long waits veterans face in seeking benefits for their service-related injuries.
As recently as March, more than 611,000 veterans and their families had waited longer than 125 days to hear whether the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would approve their claims. The backlog has since dropped to about 500,000, thanks to a new effort to give overtime to VA workers.
But that improvement also has led to fears that the focus on these applicants comes at the expense of others — particularly veterans who have been denied the benefits they want and are appealing the VA's decision.
"The VA has a whack-a-mole problem," said Matthew Hill, an attorney who represents veterans seeking disability compensation.
Whenever the VA throws its budget of $138.5 billion at one problem, he said, another gets worse. And this time it's hurting those trying to appeal denials by the VA, a process that can drag on for years.
Emblematic of the problem is the VA's regional office in St. Petersburg, which serves Florida. Claims are processed in the order they are received and as of last month, officials there were working appeals dating back to 2010. More than 21,000 cases are pending there.
Among those waiting is Eddie Cruz, a U.S. Navy veteran from Orlando who served from 1978 to 1980.
While onboard the USS Nassau, Cruz said he fell down a flight of stairs during an early-morning drill and hurt his head badly. Months of hospitalization followed, and Cruz said drugs given to him afterward eventually caused a condition known as "tardive dyskinesia," an affliction that can lead to involuntary tics.
"I have so much difficulty picking up things, going into the shower and doing basic everyday functions," said Cruz, 53, who said the condition prevents him from working.
Though it was not initially apparent, Cruz said the condition gradually has worsened, and in 2009 he filed a claim to augment the VA benefits he already received. But he was denied in 2010, and he's been appealing ever since.
"You never think it's a lifetime injury," he said.
Backlogs across the VA have come under intense scrutiny lately. In the spring, Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" ran a segment dubbed "The Red Tape Diaries" that lampoons the VA for its inefficiencies — and its towering piles of paper files.
Federal watchdogs have noticed as well.
"Regional office managers did not assign enough staff to process appeals, diverted staff from appeals processing, and did not ensure appeals staff acted on appeals promptly because [initial] compensation claims processing was their highest priority," said a 2012 report by the VA's inspector general.
The report estimated that the nationwide inventory of appeals had jumped from about 160,000 in 2008 to roughly 246,000 in 2011.
In response, the VA said the focus on initial claims is necessary to keep pace with a flood of filings from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well those related to the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange, which the VA in 2010 made easier for affected veterans to claim.
"The reallocation of resources necessitated by this dramatic workload increase resulted in a significant loss in claims-processing capacity and left fewer resources to process the regular rating workload, including appeals," wrote VA officials.
So which veterans are most affected by the delays in processing appeals?
Andy Marshall, who works in Florida for the Disabled American Veterans, said the most common cases on appeal are those that either deal with post-traumatic stress disorder or are filed by aging veterans, who have a tougher time proving that a disability is "service-connected."
The VA's push to clear first-time claims, however, is having an effect. On Thursday, a VA spokesman said the number of "backlog" claims — those pending longer than 125 days — had fallen below a half-million for the first time in almost two years. As part of that initiative, nearly all the claims older than two years were processed.
Though outwardly positive, Hill, of the firm Hill & Ponton with several offices in Central Florida, warned the rush could lead to mistakes — and only increase the number of veterans seeking appeals.
"A fear I have is that you have this push to get out the first claims [and] when there is an error, your lines for appeals just got longer," Hill said.