Michael Scheibel is director of the Department of Veterans Affairs office… (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington…)
BALTIMORE — Veterans across Maryland who have filed disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Baltimore office may wait more than a year for a decision and even then face a 25 percent chance that their claims will be mishandled, according to agency figures.
Nationally, the system is struggling with a backlog of more than 900,000 claims, the result of a sharp increase in filings by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as by older generations. The Baltimore regional office’s performance is among the nation’s worst, with claims filed by veterans seeking disability compensation pending 429 days on average, six times VA’s goal of 70 days, and 162 days longer than the national average.
The wait in Baltimore, which serves nearly a half-million veterans living in Maryland, is longer than in any of VA’s 56 offices except the one in Oakland, Calif., figures show. And the Baltimore office’s 73.8 percent accuracy rate, measuring the percentage of disability claims completed without error, is the country’s worst.
The Obama administration has made a pledge to break the agency’s backlog by 2015, with all claims processed within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy rate. VA has introduced a parade of changes nationwide to attack the backlog, including a new paperless claims system that Baltimore will get this year.
But Baltimore’s ills demonstrate how entrenched the backlog problem is and how difficult it will be to reach the 2015 goals.
“Why does it take so long to give people something they’ve earned?” Jonathan W. Greene, an Army veteran from Annapolis who served in Vietnam, asked during a visit to the federal building on Hopkins Plaza, a few blocks from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It was one of many trips he has made over the past year to sort out a problem over disability payments dating to 2010.
The answer to Greene’s question is a multilayered one. Baltimore offers a case study of what has happened in a system overtaken in the past decade by a flood of claims — more than 1 million a year — and what can happen when the challenge is compounded by what critics call VA mismanagement.
The increase in compensation requests has been fed by troops leaving the service as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, liberalized rules governing claims related to Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress, and enormous growth in the average number of medical conditions claimed by veterans.
Baltimore’s problems, veterans’ representatives say, also illustrate the role that poor planning and neglect — such as allowing extended vacancies in critical positions — have played in the crisis, which in this case left the office without adequate resources.
VA officials say the leadership team now directing Baltimore will make a difference. “Not to say we don’t have a big job in front of us, but I think we have the right folks to lead the effort,” said Diana Rubens, VA deputy undersecretary for field operations.
“I want to be a lot better than where we are,” said Michael Scheibel, who has been director of the Baltimore office since 2011.
‘Expanded too rapidly’
The problems did not develop overnight. “Baltimore has been a somewhat troubled office for decades,” said Gerald Manar, who worked 30 years in the VA benefits system before becoming deputy director of National Veterans Service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “It’s been on a roller coaster, depending on the quality of the management.”
Like offices in other big cities, Baltimore’s has had difficulty retaining its best employees, who can be lured away by better-paying or less-demanding jobs. The problem is accentuated by Baltimore’s proximity to VA’s Washington headquarters, which tends to poach the best supervisors.
During the earlier years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2007, the number of pending claims in Baltimore hovered at or below 5,000, a manageable load, while nationally the figure stayed below 400,000.
The real crisis began in 2007, when Baltimore was selected to help pilot a joint VA-Defense Department integrated disability evaluation system, an effort aimed at eliminating red tape that ensnared service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals.
Eager to move forward with the program, VA officials overlooked the Baltimore office’s lack of preparedness for the project. “It was expanded too rapidly — the resources weren’t in place,” Manar said. “That was an office that was on the edge anyway.”
Baltimore’s top rating specialists were assigned to the project, leaving inexperienced employees to process complex claims.
“We hired persons at the same time the work actually hit,” Scheibel said. “It put the office behind from the get-go.”
The number of pending claims in Baltimore began to rise, reaching 6,200 by 2008 and 7,000 in 2009.