DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, even if we go off that fiscal cliff, one thing the government has promised to protect is veterans benefits. Even so, veterans are finding the process of receiving those benefits can be arduous. Hundreds of thousands of veterans who suffered injuries while serving in the military must wait, and wait, for care and compensation. The Department of Veterans Affairs promised at the beginning of 2012 to cut into that big backlog of claims.
Well, the year is coming to an end, the results are in, and they're not good. NPR's Quil Lawrence explains why.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Kevin English did three tours as a Marine in Iraq. When he came home to Arizona, he suffered from vicious headaches and neck pain that made it hard to keep a job. The worst day was when he found he couldn't lift a simple aluminum ladder.
KEVIN ENGLISH: I actually got made fun of, like I guess 'cause, you know, everyone knew I was a Marine and they could tell I was struggling. They were, like, damn, I thought you were supposed to be a Marine. Let's go.
LAWRENCE: The VA had rated English as partially disabled, but he soon found working impossible. His wife, Lindsay Dove, helped him file a new claim in February of 2011. And then they waited. And waited. And then Lindsay Dove went on YouTube with her husband's paperwork in what became a popular video among veterans.
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LINDSAY DOVE: If you look right there, it's probably backwards, but you can probably see that it was - we originally reported this claim early 2011. My baby was six weeks old. My child is almost two now.
LAWRENCE: The VA backlog is decades old, and mythic in size. Politicians speak of rooms waist-high in paperwork, a building that sags under the weight of unprocessed forms. At the start of 2012, it was taking the VA 188 days to resolve a veteran's claim. At the end of this year, that number got worse, to 262 days, and that drove Lindsay Dove back to YouTube again.
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DOVE: Hello, everybody. I'm back. Estimated claim completion date of 10/5/2013 and 5/5/2014. That right there is why veterans commit suicide.
TOMMY SOWERS: We feel like the backlog is unacceptable.
LAWRENCE: That's Tommy Sowers, an assistant secretary at the VA. He says the VA made it easier for more veterans to qualify, but by doing that they made the backlog wait longer.
SOWERS: We say that for Vietnam veterans, that we should open it up make it easier to file a claim on Agent Orange-related diseases. That means more claims are going to come in the door. When we make it easier for veterans to be diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress, that means more claims are going to come in the door.
LAWRENCE: The VA also made it easier to seek benefits for traumatic brain injury. All that means the VA has been running in place. It's processed a million claims a year, but more than a million new ones keep coming in. Tommy Sowers says they will turn the corner, but not soon.
SOWERS: I wish I could give you an answer that next month we could just throw more resources at this and eliminate that. We can't. This problem has been decades in the making and it's going to take a few years to fix.
LAWRENCE: The fixes mostly have to do with changing from a paper system to an electronic one. VA officials say to watch for improvements in 2014, and for the backlog to be eliminated in 2015. But that's no comfort to former Marine Kevin English. In fact, his wife, Lindsay Dove, says she worries that many vets don't have someone like her to fight the VA for them.
DOVE: My thing is, like, you know, Kevin has me, and I'm advocating and I'm fighting for him. He gave up a long time ago.
LAWRENCE: Dove used her private health insurance to get her husband surgery on his neck. Then, just after Thanksgiving, the VA came through with a ruling: 100 percent disability benefits. Lindsay Dove says the VA won't tell her if the decision had anything to do with her YouTube videos. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.