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Veterans’ Disability Claims Buried Under Paperwork

"It's been a constant heartache," said Mike Grabski, 32, an Army veteran who has been waiting since December of 2009 for his disability paperwork to go through
"It's been a constant heartache," said Mike Grabski, 32, an Army veteran who has been waiting since December of 2009 for his disability paperwork to go through
The average wait for a decision in the Bay Area is now 313 days

Even after Ian Rodriguez left the Marine Corps in 2006, he still felt like he was in Iraq.

The burly veteran, who played defensive end on the College of San Mateo football team before joining the military, would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night at home in San Bruno and grab his girlfriend, putting both hands around her neck.

“I had no ill will toward her,” Rodriguez, 28, said in an interview, “but while I was asleep I felt like I was still back there, and I acted it out.” He said he slept with a .40-caliber Glock pistol under his pillow and drank a bottle of whiskey every night to help him forget the war and fall asleep.

In December 2006, Rodriguez filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing that he deserved a monthly disability check and priority mental health care from the agency because of post-traumatic stress disorder. More than five years later, he is still waiting for a final determination on his case.

Rodriguez is one of 870,000 veterans nationwide who are waiting for a decision on a disability claim from the VA. The waiting list has more than doubled since President Obama took office, despite the appropriation of more than $300 million for a new computer system and the hiring of thousands of claims professionals nationwide.

The problem is particularly acute in the Bay Area, where, according to figures provided by the VA, returning soldiers wait an average of 313 days for a decision. Eighty percent must wait at least 125 days. Of the nearly 60 VA offices around the country, the Oakland office is the slowest.

“The place is filled with paper, piles of it, everywhere,” said Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from San Mateo who toured the Oakland office last month as part of a meeting with the agency’s regional director on behalf of a group of constituents with claims dating as far back as six years.

According to Speier, the backlog in Oakland has grown so severe that all new claims are immediately sent to VA offices in Lincoln, Neb., and Muskogee, Okla., where the backlog is less serious.

“It is an epidemic of delay,” Speier said. “I did not exactly leave invigorated.”

The Bay Citizen was denied a request to tour and photograph the department’s Oakland office and interview its director, Douglas Bragg. Bragg was unavailable for comment, according to Jessica Arifianto, an agency spokeswoman, but she released a statement from the office.

“We are continuously working to improve our timeliness and performance in our service to our veterans,” it said, citing “ongoing efforts” to improve the quality and timeliness of ratings decisions, including hiring additional staff members, using simpler forms and forming quality control teams.

The statement said the office was “taking steps” to meet a goal set by Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, to process all disability claims in fewer than 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.

On a tour of a VA facility in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Shineski said that, nationally, he expected waiting times to be cut in half over the next year as the new strategies are implemented.

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