Good, but not good enough. That's what veterans and President Obama alike are saying about a drop in the number of backlogged disability claims.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs said the number of backlogged disability claims has dropped by some 20 percent after it hit a record high of more than 600,000 back in March.
Numbers out Monday show the VA faces 489,387 backlogged claims. That's a 24 percent reduction from 608,225, the near-highest number the VA published on March 23.
Speaking about the drop Saturday at the Disabled American Veterans' convention in Orlando, President Barack Obama said the VA isn't where it needs to be but is making progress. For several years, and up until March, the backlog had only been growing.
"After years of military service, you shouldn't have to wait years for the benefits you've earned," President Obama told the audience.
Veterans at the Veterans Freedom Center in Dubuque Monday shared that sentiment.
Iraqi Freedom veteran Steve Klein returned from war with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"My doctor has taken me off work, so I can no longer work," he said.
Talking with others at the Veterans Freedom Center, a non-profit community center for veterans of all ages and wars, Klein said he feels supported.
"A place like the Veterans Center here, it really helps," he said, adding other vets know what he's going through, both physically and in terms of waiting for claims.
A backlogged claim is one that has been pending for more than 125 days, or roughly four months. That's how long Klein said he's been waiting so far on his claim of that he's unemployable, though he tries keeping it in perspective.
"You just have to remember that it's not just you, it's other brothers in arms that are being taken care of, currently," Klein said.
Jim Wagner is co-founder of the Veterans Freedom Center and past commander of the Iowa chapter of Disabled American Veterans. He said he knows many veterans waiting on one or more claims.
"I have them come in here all the time, and they say, 'Geez, my claim's been in six months and I haven't heard anything,'" Wagner said. "It's hard to tell them, you know, it's going to be a year, probably, before you hear anything...Hang in there is all I can tell them."
Over at the Dubuque County Veterans Affairs office, executive director Charlie Brimeyer said the 20 percent reduction in backlogged disability claims can be a deceiving number, since not every completed claim means a veteran got the help he or she may need.
"The numbers that they've given the president, I don't find them to be too impressive. I'm sorry, I just don't," Brimeyer said. "Do I find 20 percent? Yeah. Tell me how many of them were denied. And if they live in Dubuque County, I'll appeal every one I can."
He said an appealed claim still represents a veteran waiting for a decision, but it doesn't show up in the number of pending backlogged claims (the one that showed the 20 percent drop).
In other words, of the approximately 120,000 backlogged claims the VA adjudicated since March, it's likely some were approved, some were denied and some were deferred for reasons such as needing more information. Of those denied, he said, many were likely appealed, so those claims didn't just go away.
"It's just playing the waiting game," Klein said. In addition to his pending claim of being unemployable, he's also waiting on a separate appealed claim for a higher PTSD disability rating.
A veteran may file several disability claims for various injuries and requests. On its Website, the VA says it's currently paying disability benefits to nearly four million veterans.
"Of those," the Website continues, "10% have a supplemental claim in the pending compensation inventory. In fiscal year 2012, VA delivered $54 billion in compensation and pension benefits."
VA secretary Eric Shinseki has promised to eliminate the backlog by 2015.
The non-profit Veterans Freedom Center relies entirely upon donations, and 100 percent of its money goes to helping veterans, Wagner said. The center is holding one of its largest annual fundraisers Saturday, Aug. 17 at Catfish Charlie's in Dubuque. Information is HERE.
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