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.