Three hours into a congressionally sponsored forum on the long wait times that Northern California veterans face when they file disability claims, 26-year-old Air Force veteran Sabrina Shindler rose from her seat.
“We’re not getting answers, we’re getting excuses,” Shindler yelled at two senior Department of Veterans Affairs officials at the front of the room.
Shindler said she had been waiting for nearly two years for a decision from the VA regional office in Oakland on a disability claim she filed for post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she was sexually assaulted during a 2008 posting in Germany.
Shindler’s outburst was one of many during a four-hour meeting organized by U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier, a San Mateo Democrat, and Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat, in response to revelations published last month by The Bay Citizen that the backlog of veterans' disability claims had exploded to 860,000 under the Obama administration.
The problem is particularly acute in the Bay Area, where veterans wait an average of 320 days for a decision from the VA’s Oakland office. In April, when The Bay Citizen published its report, the average wait time was 313 days.
According to figures released Monday by the VA, 33,974 Northern California veterans are waiting for the VA to issue a ruling on their disability claim; 82.8 percent must wait at least 125 days, making Oakland the slowest of the VA’s 57 regional offices.
An inspector general's report released earlier this month found disability claims filed at the Oakland office had languished up to eight and a half years.
"We want to sound the alarm throughout the country," Speier told more than 200 veterans who crowded into a second-floor hearing room in San Francisco's War Memorial Veterans Building.
"The national focus is on what has taken place here in the Bay Area," she said.
Throughout the more than four-hour meeting, veterans hissed and shouted at Willie Clark, the VA’s western regional director, and Douglas Bragg, director of the Oakland office, calling them "liars" and demanding swift action on individual claims that often dated back years.
In the center of the room, 93-year-old World War II veteran Jake Ventrella sat in his wheelchair, his claim pending for more than two years.
His friend and caregiver, June Carter, said Ventrella's disability claim was being delayed while the VA sought additional exams to see if his health had improved.
"He’s 93 years old," Carter said. "His condition is not going to improve."
"Jake wanted you to know when the United States called, he went — to the Rhineland, to Battle of the Bulge, to Luxembourg and Normandy," Carter added. "Now he's asking for help, and you're running us around in circles. You should be ashamed of yourself," she said as cheers rang out throughout the room.
The VA officials stood in front of the room throughout the meeting, calmly responding to each veteran's questions and comments.
"I understand their frustration," Bragg said in an interview after the meeting. "I understand that this is unacceptable. We have a plan, and we are going to get better."
Clark said the agency had begun sending most new claims to regional offices in Nebraska and Oklahoma, which have shorter backlogs, and veterans should begin seeing results, in the form of quicker response times, beginning in the late summer or early fall.
He said the backlog and delays were caused by a tidal wave of new claims filed by aging Vietnam veterans who suffer from conditions that the government had only recently acknowledged stem from the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
That, coupled with hundreds of thousands of disability claims filed by veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, were straining the agency's resources, he said.
"Oakland made 30,000 decisions last year; we still have 34,000 pending," he said. "We just need to do more, and we need to do better."
Many of the veterans who attended today's hearing did so in the hopes of getting their personal disability claim resolved from claims processors the VA had on hand in an adjoining room. According to Speier's office, 220 veterans registered to receive assistance.
Late in the afternoon, however, the VA announced that it did not have enough staff on site to meet with all of the veterans who registered. By the end of the day, only half of the veterans who came to the hearing seeking help saw a claims professional.