Bay Area veterans wait nearly a year on average for their disability claims to get processed at the regional center in Oakland, according to a highly critical federal report released Thursday, leading one East Bay congressman to call the facility a bureaucratic "black hole."
The Oakland office, which handles benefits claims for veterans from Bakersfield north to the Oregon border, had almost 32,500 claims waiting an average of 269 days -- compared with a national target time of 180 days -- when the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general visited in December. As of April, the delay for veterans had increased to 320 average days.
Some wait far longer. Vietnam War veteran Richard Carpino, a 70-year-old retired plumber living in Lodi, spent more than seven years in the toxic boiler room of a Navy destroyer, where he was exposed to asbestos. Starting in 2000, he spent more than a decade fighting for his proper disability pay. Even after a congressman wrote a letter on Carpino's behalf, it was an additional 15 months before his claim was accepted and he received payments. He now gets $2,924 per month from the VA.
As for the struggle and wait, Carpino said, "The military was easier. ... There really was no fighting there."
The 320 average pending days at the Oakland center compares with an average of 241 days last month at the other 56 facilities nationwide, according to statistics provided to Rep. Jerry McNerney's office.
"There are very high-performing regional centers," McNerney said by phone from Washington, D.C. "Ours is not.
"What's bothering me is that it has to come to this, where we have congressional hearings (and) bad press before getting any action," he said. "The veterans with disabling injuries, by and large, get taken care of pretty quickly; it's the ones on the margins who are depending on disability assistance that are affected, and their families."
McNerney said that at a recent Lodi town hall meeting veterans complained about the long waits. "They feel like they are in a black hole," he said.
Carpino can attest to that. After numerous denials of his claims, he approached McNerney's office in 2008. By June 2010, with his lung capacity about half of normal, Carpino applied for 100 percent disability, and included a letter from the Pleasanton congressman with the application. More than a year later, on Sept. 28, the VA awarded him the full coverage, including retroactive pay.
"Anytime they would deny me and gave me the reason, I would go on to the computer and the VA files and find another reason that made me eligible," Carpino said.
"It took me 11 years. Eleven years is too long to get compensated. We're trying to find a way to speed it up," he said.
The 10 oldest Oakland claims had been pending for between 1,040 and 3,187 days, according to the report. The facility, with 269 full-time employees inside the Ron Dellums Federal Building in downtown Oakland, failed to follow VA policy and provide monthly reviews of claims older than a year, the report found.
A call to the VA media office Thursday was not immediately returned. But officials at the Oakland facility concurred with all the report's findings, and management said a plan is in place to ensure that 95 percent of claims completed by July will be those pending more than one year.
As of last month, it took an average of 125 days before an Oakland VA employee first eyeballed a veteran's claim, according to McNerney's office. Carpino said such long waits may dissuade returning soldiers from trying to access the help they need.
"There are a lot of young guys coming out of Iraq that don't want to get involved in it and don't want to deal with the VA," he said. "A lot of guys are maimed so bad, they have no arms or legs and they have to fight for every last bit and that's not right."
Patrick Leary, a 65-year-old Vietnam War veteran from Pleasanton, filed a claim for treatment of ringing in the ears in May 2011 -- caused, he believes, by his years piloting helicopter gunships. In January, he found out his claim was denied because the VA said helicopter pilots were not exposed to much noise -- although he said the VA never alerted him -- and he appealed. He had his first hearing test last month, and his claim is pending.
"If you've got to wait for your disability check, that's a problem," Leary said. "Your first disability check is retroactive to the day you filed, but depending on the severity of your malady, you may not live to get it."
The Oakland VA facility has pledged to increase staffing in critical areas, boost training and advance software to speed up and improve its claims process, according to the report.
"The thing I want to see is concrete results, not talk about plans to do this and that," McNerney said. "It's a disgrace that we're sitting and talking about this today."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
"There are very high-performing regional centers. Ours is not. It's a disgrace that we're sitting and talking about this today."
-- Rep. Jerry McNerney,
By the numbers
Average time to get a claim processed through the VA regional office in Oakland
Average time to get a claim processed at the other 56 facilities nationwide
Amount of the 90 disability claims inspected that were incorrectly processed