10/23/2014

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KATU Investigators

Thousands of local veterans wait hundreds of days for benefits

Thousands of local veterans wait hundreds of days for benefits

PORTLAND, Ore. – After serving their country with honor, more than 10,000 local veterans are waiting hundreds of days to get help.

VA centers across the country are reducing the number of veterans waiting for disability benefits. But that's not happening in Portland. The number of vets here waiting for their benefits is growing.

Over a thousand veterans a month apply for disability benefits in Portland.

An analysis done by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that as of last week the average wait time in the Portland area to access disability benefits was 217 days.

There are more than 12,000 veterans in the Portland area waiting for those benefits – 9,000 have been waiting for more than three months and about 3,000 for more than a year.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was in town last week to promote changes in the VA he said will end the benefits backlog by 2015.

"What we've done, as I've said, is train the workforce on new business practices we've put in place and given them a better tool called VBMS," he said.

VBMS is a new computer system that replaced the VA's pen-and-paper method of processing benefits applications.

Shinseki said it's helped reduce the backlog by 20 percent nationwide.

But Portland has had the system in place since December and the backlog here is still bulging.

"You're going to have spot variations in performance as you look across the whole system. We broker claims. We move claims around," Shinseki said was the reason for the difference in Portland.

But the Portland VA office is still taking in more claims than it can process.

"Part of our challenge with completions for this year has been the transition into the new model with VBMS. We saw the worst of that back in December," said regional director Chris Marshall. "We've been increasing our productivity since. So I'm confident our projections show that we'll be able to decrease our own local backlog on schedule if not a little before then."

One veteran said it didn't use to be this way.

Army veteran Glenn Huiett served in Korea in the 1970s. Back then he said getting benefits through the VA was easy.

"The VA hospital was great – went to it – we were taken care of," he said. "There were no problems at all."

He said his fellow veterans deserve better. They deserve the kind of service they gave to their country.

"They need this help," he said. They're in wheelchairs. They have a prosthetic device."

During the time when the backlog was ballooning, millions of dollars in bonuses and pay raises were handed out to VA staff.

The Western area director, who oversees 14 states, including Oregon, got a $20,000 bonus in 2009 and an $18,000 bonus in 2010.

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Protecting the program: 'Lives have been destroyed due to the negligence of U of O administrators' Protecting the program: 'Lives have been destroyed due to the negligence of U of O administrators'