The Department of Veteran Affairs will be the first to say that having veterans waiting for benefits they've earned is absolutely unacceptable. That doesn't help the fact that some veterans have waited more than two years to receive some claims. However there are improvements being made to the benefits system.
ONE VETERAN'S EXPERIENCE
It's was Friday morning when Army Veteran Kathleen Baker dropped into the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center for an exam. It's an ongoing process for the medically discharged mother of two, and while it might be hard to imagine Baker, with her inviting smile and twinkling eyes, outfitted with an M-16, kevlar vest, seven magazines and fully geared rucksack, that's exactly what she wore in Iraq.
"And if you weren't in a hard site building you could not remove your gear because we were getting mortars coming in on a pretty regular basis that year or firefights, we had a few firefights," said Baker.
During her service Baker provided mental health care for detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison right after the abuse scandal broke.
"So I was there for 11 months and I saw 11,000 detainees and I also treated troops and civilians who needed mental health care, which was a very interesting experience," Baker said.
Baker's unit changed the way military prisoners would be treated in the future.
"And we wrote the manuals, the Army manuals, on detainee care, all of them, just the hospitalization care, wound care, mental health care," she said.
With a smile she'll tell you how war changed her way of thinking.
"It's amazing how mortar attacks and bullets whizzing by can make you re-evaluate exactly what you want from life. I was pretty sure I didn't want kids before I went to Iraq and I came back from Iraq pretty sure I wanted children," said Baker.
War also took a toll on her body. The constant weight of her gear ended with two herniated disks in her back.
"I also had some hip bursitis in left and right. I have tinnitus in my ears. I have neuropathy from the sciatica from my back so I have nerve damage in my left leg," said Baker.
Baker was medically discharged in May 2006 and filed for benefits in June of that year. The following January she received an 80-percent disability rating, which means she can't do most of the things she used to enjoy before the war. It also plays into how much she money receives from the VA.
Eight months may seem long a long time to wait for benefits, but thousands of veterans wait much longer. Baker's claim would have processed a lot quicker had it not been for her pregnancy during that period.
WHERE THE BACKLOG ORIGINATED
"Well I think probably the backlogs began in 2009," said Pat Prieb, Director for the Seattle VA Regional Office.
In the last four years the number of claims submitted to the Veterans Benefit Administration has ballooned.
"We've ended 10 years of war many veterans are returning with severe more complex injuries as well as increased demand by our aging veteran population," Prieb said.
From 2009 through 2013, the VA completed a record 4.1 million claims but took in 4.6 million claims, meaning more than half a million veterans had to wait for help.
Another reason for the growth in claims is the expansion of benefits, for veterans from earlier wars, with medical conditions relating to the use of Agent Orange, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Gulf War Illness. The long overdue action has led to nearly a million new claims, meaning veterans filling for supplemental claims are more than double first time claim filers.
Right now, the VA has more than 700,000 pending claims. More than half of them have been backlogged more than 4 months.
"Veterans shouldn't have to wait for the benefits that they've earned. This has never been unacceptable," said Prieb.
WHAT'S BEING DONE ABOUT THE BACKLOG
The VA is implementing new strategies to keep up, including better training for claims processors and people focused initiatives that fast track less complex claims while sending more complex claims to more experienced and skilled processors.