RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We've been hearing stories for years now, of veterans coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan with disabilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to get a job. And these veterans can wait a year or more to get disability benefits because the VA has a backlog of thousands of disability claims. Just getting the physical exam required to start the process can take months. From member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, Julie Rose has more.
JULIE ROSE: Twenty-four year old Evan John is so afraid of crowds that he only shops at Wal-Mart in the middle of the night. Mostly he stays in his small Charlotte apartment, reading or playing soccer video games.
Mr. EVAN JOHN (Veteran): I imagined I would be able to transition into civilian life a little better than I did, you know?
ROSE: In 2007, John returned from a second deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines Weapons Company. An explosion that killed another Marine left John with multiple injuries. PTSD and severe anxiety make him unable to hold a job. His medical file is inches thick.
Mr. JOHN: These are all the findings for traumatic brain injury and then PTSD.
ROSE: As soon as he got home, John applied for disability benefits from the VA, but it would be nine months before the $1,400 monthly checks would start coming. Meanwhile, he had $800 a month in military separation pay and his credit cards.
Mr. JOHN: At one point 10, almost $15,000 in debt, you know, just because I wasn't able to sustain - as far as income was concerned.
ROSE: Did you feel like nine months was pretty reasonable?
Mr. JOHN: Um, no, no. No. I've heard that it's so much worse now.
Mr. JIM STRICKLAND (Veterans' Advocate): I tell people that I work with that they're going to wait 18 to 24 months before they have their first adjudication.
ROSE: This is Jim Strickland, a veterans' advocate from Georgia who runs the site VAwatchdogtoday.org. In the last year, the backlog of disability claims at the VA has grown from half a million to nearly 800,000. VA officials point to two main reasons: the wave of young veterans coming home injured; and new rules that allow Vietnam veterans to apply for more compensation from Agent Orange exposure.
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ROSE: At this VA Hospital in Salisbury, North Carolina, and others like it around the country, the claims process hits a bottleneck. Veterans making a disability claim need a compensation and pension exam - or C&P, for short. Dr. Miguel LaPuz says it's no ordinary physical.
Dr. MIGUEL LAPUZ: A compensation and pension examination is a forensic examination - for example, establish on when the condition came about.
ROSE: These exams can take hours - poring over every detail of a veteran's medical record and service history, says LaPuz. Last summer, the number of veterans waiting for a C&P exam doubled in the VA's Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network.
Mr. DAN HOFFMAN (Director, VA Mid-Atlantic Network): Seven thousand veterans waiting for an exam, and that was wholly unacceptable.
ROSE: This is Dan Hoffman, who directs the VA Mid-Atlantic Network, which covers North Carolina and Virginia. His was one of the larger backlogs in the country, partly because North Carolina has so many large military bases.
Mr. HOFFMAN: The number was so high for us, we had to try something very, very different.
ROSE: He settled on a blitz. For one full week in March, the region's VA hospitals and clinics dedicated 80 percent of their appointments to C&P exams -clearing 2,000. Hoffman hopes for similar results with another blitz next week, and again in May. That could eliminate the region's C&P backlog. Veterans advocate Jim Strickland was skeptical at first.
Mr. STRICKLAND: But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that they were at least trying to do something.
ROSE: Still, he warns, veterans won't get their disability checks any faster if the results of their C&P exams just go back into the larger claims backlog. The U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs has made fixing the claims backlog a priority. There are a number of pilot programs under way nationwide, but the list of veterans waiting grows longer by the day.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte.
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