Florida's veterans endure some of the nation's longest waits for benefits claims, according to a U.S. Senate report that lists St. Petersburg's regional office as the country's 10th worst-performing in terms of wait times.
Veterans here waited an average of 231 days for their claims to be processed, according to the bipartisan report released Wednesday that called for a wide-scale review.
"It's a disgrace. It's unbelievable. I can't believe our government allows it to happen," said Mike O'Dell, 61, president of the Tampa chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. "They keep saying that they've put more people into the system now to work on these claims, but I don't know how they're ever going to dig themselves out of the hole that they got themselves into."
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, announced in April that he secured money in a bill to hire hundreds of employees at the Veterans Benefits Administration and at regional offices, including St. Petersburg, to ease the backlog. Claim delays, the Senate report said, "can devastate a veteran financially and emotionally."
The report urged an independent review of the Department of Veterans Affairs for mismanagement and changes to improve budgeting and speed up applications.
Nine senators, troubled by delays in handling veterans claims, announced legislation that would require the Government Accountability Office to investigate all 56 regional offices for problems. The worst performer, according to the report, was Baltimore's office, with an average of 280 days to complete claims. In contrast, Providence, R.I., completed claims in 60 days.
The senators acknowledged recent efforts by the VA to reduce disability and pensions claims backlogs but said it wasn't enough.
It was the latest sign of congressional concern that recent findings of mismanagement at the Philadelphia VA — including neglected mail, manipulation of dates to make old claims look new and alteration of quality reviews — might point to a broader, departmentwide problem.
"The VA system again finds itself engulfed in another scandal," said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., co-chairman of the Senate's VA backlog working group. VA offices nationwide are suffering from poor management, he said, proving "it is time for an overhaul of the entire system."
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., the other co-chairman, said he too was worried that problems were not isolated to Philadelphia. "It's simply unacceptable to have a veteran with a disability wait hundreds of days for their claim to be resolved," he said.
The VA says there are 161,000 disability and compensations claims on backlog, defined as pending more than 125 days. That's down from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013. But the VA inspector general has questioned the accuracy of the data.
Attempts to reach officials at the St. Petersburg Regional Benefit Office were unsuccessful Wednesday evening.
But employee Andy Marshall, area supervisor for the National Service office of the Disabled American Veterans, called the office's backlog reduction in recent months "amazing."
"I'm pretty amazed at how they have reduced not only their backlog of claims but how they have reduced the average days pending in those claims," he said. Compared with the delays of years past, he said, "the vast majority of (veterans) are very happy."
He credited the improvements at the nation's busiest claims processing center, to mandatory overtime for employees and electronic filing, among other efforts.
St. Petersburg's inclusion in the 10 worst-performing offices came as a surprise to Ronald Mills, Commander of VFW Post 4256 in Madeira Beach.
"In my personal experience, I've never had a wait. I've had very much success there," he said. "Occasionally, you'll hear someone say they're having trouble making an appointment, but that's rare as opposed to being the norm."
Based on a review of VA records, the Senate report said the other worst-performing regional offices as judged by wait times as of April 6 were Baltimore; Jackson, Miss.; Reno, Nev.; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; Indianapolis; and Boston.
As of April, the VA's inspector general had documented doctored data or other problems at five of the 10 offices.
The report calls on the inspector general to determine whether claims processors should be held to deadlines and calls on the department to beef up manager training, complete an updated assessment of staffing and budget needs within six months, and keep Congress informed about its transition to an electronic claims systems.
Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, has said she does not believe problems in Philadelphia are "systemic" but more likely a case of misunderstood policies.
Delays in compensation claims prompted veterans groups to seek changes last year before attention shifted to problems at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. The VA ultimately found that patient waits and falsified records in its health network were "systemic," leading to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.