Hundreds of veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabilities that make it hard or impossible for them to get a job. Many are eligible for disability benefits, but with a wait time that can last months or even years, the veterans are at risk of serious financial trouble.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a backlog of thousands of disability claims, and it can take months to even get the physical exam required to start the process. Faced with a long waiting list, officials in North Carolina are trying to find a way to speed things up.
Living On $800 A Month
Iraq veteran Evan John, 24, is so afraid of crowds that he shops only at Walmart in the middle of the night. He spends most of his time in his small apartment in Charlotte, N.C., reading or playing soccer video games.
"I imagined I would be able to transition into civilian life a little bit better than I did, you know?" he says.
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.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety make him unable to hold a job. His medical file is inches thick; it includes findings for both traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
As soon as he got home from the war, John applied for disability benefits from the VA. But it took nine months for the $1,400 monthly checks to start coming. In the meantime, he lived on $800 a month in military separation pay — and his credit cards.
John says that at one point, he was almost $15,000 in debt, "just because I wasn't able to sustain, as far as income was concerned."
Asked if he felt like nine months was a reasonable time to wait, John answers, "No, no, no. And I've heard it's so much worse now."
Claims Process Hits Bottleneck
"I tell people that I work with that they're going to wait 18 to 24 months before they have their first adjudication," says veterans advocate Jim Strickland, who runs the site VAwatchdogtoday.org.
In the last year, the backlog of disability claims at the VA has grown from 500,000 to more than 800,000. Officials at the VA point to two main reasons: the wave of young veterans coming home injured; and new rules allowing Vietnam veterans to apply for more compensation from Agent Orange exposure.
The claims process hits a bottleneck at VA hospitals. That's where veterans who are making a disability claim need to undergo a compensation and pension exam, or C&P.
Dr. Miguel LaPuz at the VA Medical Center in Salisbury, N.C., says the exam is no ordinary physical.
"A compensation and pension examination is a forensic examination," he says, "for example, [to] establish when the condition came about."
Every detail of a veteran's medical record and service history is analyzed, LaPuz says; it can take hours.
Setting Up A 'Blitz'
Last summer, the number of veterans in the VA's Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network who were waiting for a C&P exam doubled.
That means that there were "7,000 veterans waiting for an exam — and that was wholly unacceptable," says Dan Hoffman, who directs the network, which covers North Carolina and Virginia.
The backlog was one of the larger ones in the country, partly because North Carolina has so many large military bases.
"The number was so high for us, we had to try something very, very different," Hoffman says.
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 cases.
Hoffman is hoping for similar results from another blitz next week and another in May. If that happens, the strategy could eliminate the region's C&P backlog.
Strickland says he was skeptical at first.
"But the more I thought about it," he says, "the more I thought that they were at least trying to do something."
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 backlog a priority. There are a number of pilot programs under way nationwide — but the list of veterans who are waiting grows longer by the day.