Editorial: VA 'black hole' in Oakland is an atrocity

Posted: 05/11/2012 04:29:07 PM PDT
May 17, 2012 5:48 PM GMTUpdated: 05/17/2012 10:48:50 AM PDT

The Coliseum's rowdy section during Raiders games isn't the only "black hole" in Oakland. The regional office of the Department of Veterans Affairs has earned that nefarious moniker from California veterans who must deal with it.
To hear them tell it, the office is where valid benefit claims go to die, or at least to languish interminably. Now an audit by the VA's own inspector general backs up their view, and then some. The report blisters the Oakland office, which is responsible for veterans' benefit claims from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.

The findings are outrageous on at least two fronts. Not only is the office far slower than the national average in handling claims, when it finally does get around to doing something, its accuracy rate is abysmal.

As of April, the average wait on a benefits claim in the regional office was 320 days. The VA's national target is 180 days, and the national average is 241 days, based on data provided by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton.

Moreover, it took an average of 125 days for an Oakland VA employee to even take a first look at a veteran's claim.
It gets worse. When the auditors analyzed 60 random cases in two major categories -- temporary full disability evaluations and traumatic brain injury claims -- they found that the office incorrectly processed the claims in 33 of the cases. That's right, more than half.

This is happening even though post-traumatic stress disorder and other effects of war finally are gaining broad understanding among the public, if not within the VA offices. And more soldiers are surviving what might have been fatal wounds just decades ago. When they come home, they need help. Surely this is one social contract nobody wants to break.

The Oakland office has 269 full-time employees to handle 32,500 pending claims. The audit report says the office agrees with the inspector general's findings, and its management has been "responsive" to recommendations. That's what they all say, but apparently some things are being done.

A letter sent to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, from the undersecretary of veterans affairs for benefits, outlined an aggressive program of retraining case workers, more oversight from higher management and a shift of some processing to other VA offices to help Oakland dig itself out of its black hole. Perhaps most significantly, a new director has been assigned to the Oakland office. Anyone in the military can tell you leadership makes all the difference.

Still, it's hard to imagine a recovery quick enough to be acceptable. The audit found that the 10 oldest claims in the office have been pending between 1,040 and 3,187 days. Let us help with that math: It's between 2.8 and 8.7 years. As long as those claims remain unresolved, it's hard to buy the "responsive" plea.

The VA nationwide faces a tsunami of claims in the next few years as members of the armed forces return home from Afghanistan, where, despite or perhaps because of our exit strategy, battles continue to rage and casualties to mount. If the VA can't deal with the workload it has today, how will it handle the next wave of returning veterans?
This one's not about money. It's about respect, and it's about living up to obligations. This country owes at least that to its veterans.

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