Nearly 90,000 Californians are waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to rule on their disability claims. Most have been waiting for more than four months.
They are not just waiting for a check. The department must determine veterans are "service-connected disabled" before they can access a range of government programs — from tax breaks to preferences on state and federal contracts and small business loans.
“It’s an obvious domino effect we’re dealing with every day, day in and day out,” said Cheryl D. Cook of the San Francisco County Veterans Service Office, which helps veterans with their disability claims.
The wait times are especially long in Northern California. The Bay Citizen has found that returning veterans must wait an average of 320 days for a decision from the VA’s Oakland regional office.
Nearly 35,000 Northern California veterans are currently waiting for the department to issue a ruling on their disability claims. More than 80 percent have been waiting for at least 125 days.
VA representatives would not comment for this story. Douglas Bragg, director of the Oakland regional office, and Willie Clark, the agency’s Western Regional Director, have agreed to answer questions on the backlog from the California congressional delegation at a public event at San Francisco’s War Memorial Building May 21.
Veterans with pending claims have also been invited to attend the meeting and speak about their experience with delays. According to Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Bruno), VA staff will be available to help resolve claims in a separate meeting room.
Over 45 percent of the more than 1.5 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home and filed a disability claim. The most common claims granted have been for tinnitus, back pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Cook said that disabled veterans often come to her office for help obtaining free tuition for their children at California State University or the University of California — a benefit open to any veteran with a service-connected disability whose child earns less that the federal poverty line.
“But we can’t act until we get the determination from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Cook said, which “is not something we can get for next semester or even sometimes next year.”
Disabled veterans are also eligible for a partial exemption from state property tax worth up to $1,500.
“These people have a normal life and a normal home, and they go to war and they become a hundred percent disabled," said Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone. "They are low-income and they can lose their home to foreclosure because they can’t pay their taxes, but we can’t do anything until we get that clearance from the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Other benefits available to disabled veterans include the ability to apply, without competition, for a federal job. State and federal agencies are both required to give 3 percent of government contracts to businesses owned by service-connected disabled veterans. Disabled veterans are also granted preference for loans backed by the Small Business Administration.
“These programs exist because the state of California looked at the state of veterans and saw there is going to have to be some way of assisting them to get back into society," said Richard Dryden, director of the California Disabled Veterans Business Alliance, a Sacramento-based nonprofit. "It makes them a producer; it makes them an employer and a taxpayer, so it all makes sense.”
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with a service-connected disability have an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent, nearly 4 percentage points higher than the national average.