Oakland VA office making strides to improve service to veterans

San Jose Mercury News

Oakland VA office making strides

Three years ago, the Oakland regional office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was among the nation’s worst at processing claims in a timely manner, state and federal audits showed.

The office, which handles disability claims for all Northern California veterans, had a backlog of 23,000 cases and took an average of more than 33 weeks to process a claim.

Today, that number is down to 11,135 and the processing time has been cut by six weeks at the office, which is the third busiest in the nation with more than 94,500 veterans receiving disability benefits. But a variety of factors could swell the number of claims waiting to be processed, adding to the frustration of veterans who have to deal with the system.

California veterans have reason to be frustrated: The state’s three regional centers had a higher percentage of people who waited 12 months or more for claims to be processed than 39 other states, according to a 2003 Veterans Affairs survey obtained by Knight Ridder. And if a claim is denied, it still takes an average of 12 months to process an appeal, according to the Oakland office.

“They are tremendously overworked,” said Elinor Roberts, legal director for Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco non-profit that provides counseling, housing and legal assistance to veterans. “Having said that, it’s no excuse for some of the things that slip between the cracks or amount of time it takes.”

Roberts said one of her first cases, in 1990, involved a Vietnam veteran whose disability claim had been repeatedly denied since he filed it when he got out of the military in 1974. The claim was finally granted in 1992.

“The system is just not user-friendly,” she said.

Despite backlogs and delays, lawyers and others who help veterans in the paper chase for benefits say the Oakland office is one of the better ones. Fifty-nine percent of veterans who filed claims there expressed some level of satisfaction, according to a recent Veterans Affairs survey.

The department has had “a change in attitude in dealing with claims,” said Jack Kerwin, California’s chief of veterans services. “They seem to be a little more customer oriented, and it’s nice to see. Any improvement is welcome.”

In 2001, the California Association of County Veterans Service Officers conducted a survey asking veterans to comment on their experiences with the Veterans Affairs claims process. The responses were mostly “unforgiving,” according to the association, which published a sample.

“The VA has taken two years to process my claim,” one veteran responded. “They sent me to basic training, advanced infantry training and 12 months of combat in less time! This is a disgrace!”

Things began to change after an audit three years ago by the inspector general, when the Oakland regional office said it was adding people to a satellite office in Sacramento to help reduce the backlog.

Currently, Oakland’s processing time is a little under 28 weeks. But that is still well over the federal department’s goal of 14 weeks.

Not surprisingly, regional director C.L. Smith said in an e-mail that the most frequent complaint from veterans is, “Why is my claim taking so long?”

“Unfortunately, it sometimes takes longer than we would like for us to obtain the necessary evidence we need in order to support a claim and make an appropriate determination,” she said.

The poor preparation of some claims also can slow things down. Veterans can and do submit claims on their own, but they’d be better off doing it through a county Veterans Services office, according to many familiar with the system. The county offices are run with state and county funds and serve as a veteran’s representative, preparing claims and following them through the regional offices.

But when veterans are given a realistic explanation of what to expect, they tend to be more satisfied, said George Compton, president of the association and head of the Ventura County veterans office. “I look them in the face and say it’s going to be six to nine months,” Compton said.

Contact Pete Carey at pcarey@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5419

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