Iowa's veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq wait, on average, more than 10 months for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process their health and benefits claims.
Nearly 7,000 disabled veterans overseen by the Des Moines Department of Veterans Affairs Office are waiting an average of 313 days on claims across the state, VA records show. That number is up about 18 percent in the last 84 weeks, although the overall number of veterans in the state is down since 2000, those records show.
"I've had guys wait 13 or 14 months before even hearing anything," David "Woody" Woods, the Scott County director of veterans affairs, said.
-Photo by Kevin E. Schmidt, Quad-City Times, special to The Messenger
Iraq War veteran Jason Kerr of rural DeWitt holds onto the stack of papers that he has accumulated over the past five-years trying to get his benefits straightened out.
One of the veterans Woods works with is Jason Kerr. Kerr travels with a 25-pound stack of records from his 16-month deployment in Iraq in his pickup. The pile still is growing.
The 38-year-old DeWitt machine-gun operator is not surprised his fellow veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are waiting almost a year for benefits to help cover their combat-related injuries.
He waited five years.
The Center for Investigative Reporting has been collecting wait times for every VA regional center in the country this year for a series of reports about those waits. The times are reported by the VA.
IowaWatch, a nonprofit news organization with ties to the Center for Investigative Reporting through the Investigative News Network, and the Quad-City Times, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Burlington Hawk Eye and The Messenger used those numbers to investigate further what is happening in Iowa.
The 313-day wait time at the Des Moines Veteran's Affairs Regional Office is among the longest in the Midwest. Only Chicago, at 458 days, and St. Louis, at 321 days, have a longer wait period. The national average is 277 days.
In addition, 68.5 percent of benefits claims in Iowa take over 125 days to process, slightly higher than the national average of 66.6 percent.
The reports show accuracy, on the other hand, is 92.5 percent for the Des Moines office in the last 12 months, well above the national average of 86.4 percent.
Joyleen Maravilla, the public affairs officer at the Des Moines regional office, said 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking compensation for combat-related injuries, an all-time high. She said this is due, partially, to efforts to make veterans more aware of benefits to which they may be entitled.
Woods, in Scott County, said, "we have a weekly meeting with (the VA) in Des Moines, and last week they completed 650 cases. But another 1,500 came in the same week."
State Veterans Affairs Director Jodi Thymeson said efforts are being made to hire and train more employees to process these claims. "It's a very involved process and not something you can learn quickly," she said.
She went on to note that the information regarding wait times referred to the federal Veteran's Affairs offices and that her department is simply responsible for administering benefits once they are awarded.
Meantime, veterans wait. Webster County veterans applying for disability benefits in that western Iowa county often wait almost two years to learn if their claim will be approved.
"Typically we tell everybody 13 to 16 months," said Russ Naden, director of the Webster County Veterans Affairs Commission. "They're backed up, I know that," Naden said of the Des Moines office.
Local veterans seeking benefits generally cite four to five injuries or conditions that were caused or aggravated by their military service, Naden said. Traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder are common. But Naden also sees veterans claiming joint and back problems caused by, among other things, getting in and out of military vehicles while wearing heavy gear.
The VA's Maravilla said new hires who have gone through a redesigned training program are completing 150 percent more claims per day at a 30 percent more accurate rate.
All 56 regional Veterans Affairs plan to move away from paper-based claims to a completely digital format by the end of 2013, which according to their Claims Transformation statement will cut processing times in half.
In Iowa, care is split among four federal facilities, the Central Iowa Health Care System in Des Moines, the Iowa City hospital for Eastern Iowa, the Omaha facility, which covers most of Western Iowa, and Sioux Falls for veterans in the northwest corner of the state.
In addition, smaller, local Veteran's Affairs clinics are located in Bettendorf, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Fort Dodge, Knoxville, Marshalltown, Mason City, Ottumwa, Shenandoah, Sioux City and Waterloo, and VA Services Offices are open in all 99 Iowa counties.