Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting was reporting on delays in veterans’ disability claims in Oakland, Calif. when a reader reached out to him. Jamie Fox, a former Department of Veterans’ Affairs employee, had been fired in 2008 for “failure to follow instructions” and “misuse of time” after advocating for a veteran she believed had been unfairly denied disability benefits. Fox’s case revealed that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs had a history of mishandling disability claims. It gave insight into why, months after identifying processing problems, the VA was still failing veterans.
Glantz’s coverage of the Fox case and an interactive map of disability claims delays are part of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s series Returning Home to Battle, the latest of which appeared today: Number of veterans who die waiting for benefits claims skyrockets. The Bay Citizen has the full timeline of Glantz’s reporting on the issue.
For Glantz, an important part of the investigative process was showing an interest in veterans’ concerns. When Fox first called him, Glantz said she seemed angry and nervous. He knew she wanted to share her experience, though.
“Because I’ve been on this beat for a while, people open up,” he said.
Before meeting Fox, Glantz had been unable to discover why disability claims were delayed.
“The answers the VA were giving weren’t satisfactory,” he said. After calling and emailing the Department of Veterans Affairs, VA spokespeople would only respond in written messages. In Fox’s court papers, her supervisor at the VA openly stated that the priorities of the organization were in finishing cases rather than completing them accurately, a statement the VA stands by to this day. As a result, veterans like Hosea Roundtree, who Fox helped, may go months or even years without assistance.
Although the VA admits to making errors in 14% of disability claims, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals found errors in 35,000 of 50,000 veterans’ appeals in 2011, and 29% of those cases were later overturned in favor of the veteran. Glantz decided to work around the FOIA process and use data available online to make his own estimates.
Using a year’s worth of reports from the Office of the Inspector General, Glantz and the Center for Investigative Reporting found a 38% average error rate in the cases they studied. These cases were high-profile claims, such as in traumatic brain injury cases from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Office of the Inspector General and VA officials claim this analysis is not an accurate representation of their error rate. The VA promised to reduce delays in processing disability claims, but the average national wait time is still 262 days.
To keep the VA accountable, in April Glantz worked with a team to build an interactive map of disability claims delays. The map shows the backlogs and wait times in 58 of the VA processing centers. The data is already available online, he says, but the map updates weekly and is easier for most people to understand. He predicts the delays won’t go away anytime soon, despite recent improvements.
“2.4 million men and women have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, “3 million fought in Vietnam. This will be a huge story over the next generation.”