Nebraska veterans are getting slower service when they file disability claims because of a national push to speed up service for vets elsewhere, federal Department of Veterans Affairs officials acknowledged last week.
Two years ago, the VA's regional office in Lincoln completed claims in an average of 89 days — one of the fastest turnaround times of the 56 regional offices.
But now it takes an average of 135 days to handle claims in Lincoln. While that's still better than the national average, the slower service frustrates Nebraska veterans and those who work with them.
“From a very parochial perspective, I don't like it,” said Roger Lempke, director of military and veterans affairs in the office of Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. “It definitely hurts Nebraskans.”
Last spring, numerous media outlets published stories about the national backlog of 600,000 unsettled claims, some of them two or more years old. The backlog has grown rapidly in recent years because of a flood of returning veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the aging of the Vietnam War generation and the increased number of service-related health matters that qualify for benefits.
Amid the burst of bad publicity, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki devised a multipronged strategy to automate and streamline the claims. He promised to wipe out the backlog by 2015.
A central part of his strategy is called “brokering” — moving thousands of case files from inundated VA offices such as those in Seattle, Chicago and Baltimore, where wait times averaged a year or longer, to speedier ones such as Lincoln.
Last year the VA brokered about 20,000 of its oldest claims to Lincoln and other top-performing offices. Shinseki was so pleased with the results that he plans to broker 80,000 more claims this year, according to a statement from the VA.
As a result, VA workers in Lincoln — who used to handle only Nebraska's claims — now work overtime handling backlogged claims from other offices, delaying the cases of Nebraskans who filed later.
That's certainly irritating to the veterans service officers whose job is to help local veterans file their claims.
“It's a shell game,” said Stacy Jo Dufault, a veterans service officer in Cass and Otoe Counties. “Our Nebraska vets say their claims ought to come first.”
VA officials defend the strategy as a way to improve service nationwide.
“We realize that some stations such as Lincoln are taking a little longer. Obviously they're helping out the rest of the country, handling these claims,” said a VA official who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the matter. “A veteran is a veteran, no matter what state they live in. We have to make sure we're helping the veterans who have been waiting the longest.”
Last week, in fact, the Lincoln office — which in recent years has averaged about 1,000 new claims per month from the local region — received more than 3,000 backlogged claims from the VA office in Columbia, S.C., according to someone familiar with the workings of the office.
In a way, handing extra cases to the Lincoln office amounts to a backhanded compliment. Two years ago Lincoln boasted the second-fastest average processing time in the country, according to VA data compiled by the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting.
Lincoln's performance was better than the VA standard of 125 days to handle the complex claims, which require vets to show evidence that their illnesses and injuries are connected to their military service.
“Lincoln is probably the top in the nation, as far as I'm concerned,” said Phil Dittbrenner, a veterans service officer in Gage County. “The VA saw that and said 'We need you to process all these other states' claims.' ”
Across the border in Iowa, the claims situation looks quite a bit different. Two years ago the Des Moines regional office, which handles claims for the entire state, averaged 202 days. That was 20 percent faster than the national average, but more than double the processing time for offices in the neighboring states of Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Shinseki's efforts have paid off for Iowans. As of last week, that time had been cut to 155 days, only 20 days longer than Lincoln.
Lempke and others believe Shinseki ought to fix the offices that are chronically slow instead of outsourcing their work to better-run stations.
“They're compensating (for) the ones that are inefficient, and penalizing the ones that are efficient,” said Darlene McMartin, the veterans services officer in Pottawattamie County.
Lengthy waits for word on their claims is a major source of stress for veterans such as Penny Stutzman, 42, of Lincoln. She joined the Army in 1989 and served four years as a medic, including deployment with a hospital unit in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. Later she served 10 years in the Nebraska National Guard.
Last summer she had to quit her job because of chronic stomach ailments and worsening anxiety because of post-traumatic stress disorder. She said the PTSD dates from Feb. 25, 1991 — when one of Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles struck a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 service members and wounding 98 more.
That awful night, Stutzman treated dozens of broken and burned soldiers, most of them close to her age. She was 19.
In those days, no one thought to offer counseling to military medical personnel.
“We went to alcohol. That was our coping mechanism,” Stutzman said. “They'd say, 'You didn't really see wartime. You were in a hospital.' ”
She sought treatment from the VA after what she describes as a “meltdown” in 2008 marked by depression, extreme anxiety and panic attacks. Group counseling, psychotherapy and medication have helped a bit, but she remains uncomfortable outside her own home.
“I couldn't go to group functions. I can't even go to a movie,” Stutzman said. “For about three years, I lived on Xanax.”
At her husband's insistence, she left her stressful job reviewing immigration claims for the Department of Homeland Security. But when she tried to find a new job, she found she would panic in job interviews.
In August she applied to raise her 30 percent disability rating. She needs the extra money, especially since her husband was demoted in September when his company downsized.
The claim seemed to go nowhere. Stutzman learned the office has been swamped with out-of-state claims.
“My file is just sitting there waiting to be adjudicated,” Stutzman said. “It's all because they're brokering cases” from other states.
Late Friday, though, Stutzman learned her wait might be over. Her service officer heard that she had gotten a favorable ruling on her claim, but she hasn't received official notice yet.
Michael Knispel is waiting on his own delayed claim. Knispel, 63, of Minden, Neb., served as a combat engineer in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, clearing landing zones near the Cambodian border. In 2010 he came down with aggressive, advanced prostate cancer — a disease linked to chemical exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange. He also suffers from PTSD.
Doctors in Nebraska told Knispel his cancer was hopeless, but a physician in Arizona took his case. Treatment with radioactive seeds put the disease into remission but left him with severe bladder problems that make it impossible for him to continue his carpentry business.
In October he applied to make his “temporary” total disability rating permanent. That would entitle him to continue receiving his $3,500 a month disability check while allowing him and his family to receive VA medical care and life insurance. The wait — peppered with computer-generated VA requests for updates on his medical condition — has left him frustrated and frightened.
“I don't know what to do. It's really affecting my PTSD,” Knispel said. “It sounds like it's just sitting there in Lincoln.”
McMartin, from Pottawattamie County, worries that the VA is losing touch as it adds more distance between decision-makers and the veterans they serve.
“They need to look at people as an individual and not just a piece of paper,” she said. “They're never going to see that vet. They're never going to talk to them, face to face.”
But Shinseki's efforts are likely to continue that trend as the VA adds more automation. The VA's past reliance on paper records has drawn stiff criticism. Now, a VA spokesman said, more than 80 percent of records are on computer. That means any VA officer can work on a case from anywhere.
That is expected to greatly expand brokering, through a program called the National Work Queue. When a vet goes online to file a claim, it could be assigned to any office in the country.
“During its recent two-year-old claims effort, VA learned when the full system was used and state boundaries were disregarded, VA achieved a much higher level of production,” Allison Hickey, a VA administrator in Washington, D.C., told Congress in December.
But for veterans service advocates in Nebraska, that strategy looks scary.
“This redistribution thing is just a horrible idea,” Lempke said. “You're going to have claims here go somewhere and just sit. That's no way to run a ship.”