The Department of Veterans Affairs is closing in on a dubious distinction: Soon it will have 1 million claims from veterans waiting for someone — anyone — to act on their applications for benefits.
That might not surprise the 330,000 veterans in the Tampa Bay area. As the home office for Florida's 1.8 million veterans, the VA's benefits office at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg is the busiest in the nation.
The VA is an agency where both action and information can be hard to come by, say veterans.
"It was very frustrating," Corey Elliott, 34 of Tampa said of his experience.
After leaving the Navy in Seattle in October, he said he waited five months for the VA's Salt Lake City office to act on his disability claim. But when he called the agency's toll-free number, he was transferred to the VA in St. Petersburg, where no one could tell him whether there was a holdup.
"I did not know if I had paperwork that was missing or if I had paperwork that was incomplete or if there was something I had to do on my part to expedite it," he said.
Veterans wait an average of more than four months for the VA to process their claims. Appealing a claim takes a year and a half on average.
"It could take another nine months to a year before I go in front of the panel," said Paul Freeland, 72, a Marine veteran from Pinellas Park who is appealing the VA's denial of a disability claim.
The VA's growing inventory of claims was the subject of a congressional hearing Thursday. The VA currently is processing more than 722,000 claims and 172,000-plus appeals, for a total of about 900,000, according to the department's Web site. That is up from about 800,000 total claims in January.
The VA contends it is inaccurate to describe the number of claims as a backlog, because claims are removed constantly as they are resolved. The department said it adds an average of 80,000 claims a month.
In an effort to speed up the claims process, the VA has added 4,200 employees since early 2007. That has brought some improvement. Still, training a processor can take two years.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has directed the VA and the Pentagon to create an electronic records system by 2012.
Going to a largely paperless claims process won't be easy. The VA is the most paper-intensive federal bureaucracy, handling 162 million pages of claims documents a year.
Beyond that, other factors are adding to the inventory. Iraq war veterans with mental health problems can have complex claims. Also, a change has made it easier for Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange to qualify for disability payments.
Consequently, the VA says it's receiving about 13 percent more claims today than it did a year ago. Since 2000, the number of claims submitted annually is up 53 percent.
In November, the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of Modern Warfare sued the VA in federal court over the claims process. The advocacy groups said that the VA has long failed to decide claims for problems like traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, "on anything even approaching a timely basis."
In response, the VA said that the process is often slowed by due process protections that politicians put in place to safeguard veterans' rights. It also said it is making progress, cutting the average number of days to close a claim from nearly 179 last year to less than 162 in May.
Last year, Congress passed legislation to update the VA's claims processing. A House veterans affairs subcommittee called Thursday's hearing to consider whether the law's changes are being implemented and whether the VA can handle a million claims.
Advocates for veterans acknowledge the claims process is getting better. Still, they say, it remains so balky that some injured veterans must pay bills with credit cards while waiting for their first disability payments.
Ryan Gallucci, a spokesman for the veterans group AMVETS, said his organization supports changing the law to make it easier for a veteran to show that an injury came from military service. That, he said, could help with the claims process.
Freeland, the ex-Marine in Pinellas Park, said lost medical paperwork has caused him nothing but grief. He would welcome reforms that speed the process and give veterans like him more information from the VA.
"I've never been called once," he said. "I never hear from them."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.