The percentage of veterans facing excessive waits to learn of their eligibility for benefits from Veterans Affairs officials in Nashville more than doubled between 2010 and early 2014, jumping from 24.4 percent to 57.2 percent of veterans applying for first-time benefits, according to government data.
According to monthly reports posted online by the VA, those waiting more than 125 days for eligibility determinations stood at 1,967 in January of 2010, then climbed by more than 400 percent to 9,119 in January of this year. Similarly high percentages of delayed action were reported in other categories, such as veterans seeking an adjustment in their existing benefits.
VA officials blame the increase partly on a local jump in caseloads but say they also have been taking on claims from other regional VA offices with even greater backlogs.
Public Affairs Officer Jan Dew said the Nashville office, which serves thousands of veterans in Tennessee and the Fort Campbell area, took on pending applications totaling 15,000 from four other regional offices, including Los Angeles and St. Petersburg, beginning a little over a year ago. She said the office has completed over 12,000 of that total. Some 22,000 local claims also were processed during that period.
Even with the added cases, the Nashville office stayed slightly below the national average for delayed claims, which was 61 per cent as of Jan. 4 of this year. Among other offices in the Southeast, Washington was the highest, at 81.8 percent. Nashville was the lowest in the region. The average for the Southern Region was 63.5 percent.
Dew said the VA was dealing with the the backlog by transforming the way claims are processed and moving to a paperless system. She said the goal was to process all claims within 125 days while maintaining 98 percent accuracy.
Those processing the claims locally were working mandatory overtime, Dew said.
The Nashville VA also is waiting for the results of an audit conducted recently to determine how long those veterans who qualify have to wait for appointments to see specialists, primary care physicians and other health care providers. The audit is just one of the developments following a series of new disclosures including allegations that veterans died while waiting to get medical care from the VA's Phoenix facility. Amid questions about delays at other VA facilities around the country, calls for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki have come from both Democrats and Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper said he had not heard any results but hopes to "very soon." But the Nashville Democrat warned against overreaction to some of the recent VA disclosures, adding that the system has improved greatly in recent years.
"We don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater," he said.
Cooper, D-Nashville, said he is still waiting to hear from the VA about a claims examiner assigned to Nashville for months while working in Washington and running up thousands of dollars in unauthorized expenses. A VA official acknowledged this week that Richard Moore was still on the payroll, though he was placed on administrative leave following a blistering inspector general's report.
Some veterans say they have had to wait weeks and sometimes months to get appointments at VA facilities in Nashville and Murfreesboro.
Al Condrey, 60, of Antioch said that he was told last month that he would have to wait six weeks to have a foot injury evaluated. He said that while the health care was good overall, "When you try to see someone there's a problem."
A 59-year-old Nashville resident said he still hasn't been able to get a follow-up visit after being diagnosed with torn knee cartilage in January. He asked that he not be named for fear of retaliation.
"I need to get back to work," he said.
Legal aid available for veterans
Free legal help is available to military veterans and their families in Middle Tennessee, especially low-income vets in danger of being homeless.
In October, a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs boosted the Volunteer Lawyer Program, which brings together the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee, Operation Stand Down, and the nonprofit law firm The Cumberlands.
Already this year, 20 veterans have received legal assistance regarding housing.
The program assists veterans during monthly clinics at Operation Stand Down, including on housing, driver's licenses, criminal justice, divorce, and landlord-tenant disputes.
For more information contact Operation Stand Down at 615-248-1981 or the Legal Aid Society at 615-244-6610.