November 9th, 2004 6:07 pm
Clogged VA Delays Iraq Vets' Care; Growing U.S. backlog holds up treatment and disability claims for up to six months
By Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News
Soldiers from Michigan who risked their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning home to a veterans' benefit system that is overwhelmed, causing delays in medical and mental health treatment.
"I'm very frustrated I can't get the treatment I need," said Nathaniel Ganzeveld, 22, of Dearborn, a discharged lance corporal in the Marine Reserves who fought in Iraq and who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ganzeveld says he has waited five months for any determination on most of his claim.
The problems in Michigan are part of a national logjam of 334,611 veterans from across the country who awaited approval of benefits at the end of October, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs. That is 40 percent more than the VA says it deems optimal, and far beyond what members of Congress and veterans' groups consider justified.
Since the end of October 2003, the number of pending cases has jumped 14 percent.
Many veterans are waiting for nearly six months. From October 2003 to October 2004, the number of cases pending nationally for more than 180 days increased by about 25 percent, from 57,414 to 71,406.
The VA averages 160 days to process claims, 60 percent longer than its goal and far beyond the 60 to 90 days veterans are promised. In Metro Detroit, the VA says the average wait is 111 days. But veterans dispute that assessment and say they are often waiting six months for necessary treatment and services. Some say just getting the process started often takes months.
"If you're dying of cancer, why should you wait 60 days?" said U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, a veteran of World War II after whom the Detroit VA hospital is named.
Dingell has been aware of VA issues for some time, but he's now more keenly aware of the problems involving returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They've got very flinty-hearted policies here. I intend to raise a lot of hell when I get back to Washington."
According to the VA, less than two-thirds of the claims for disabilities related to the service of veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan have been processed. The number of claims is expected to increase, perhaps even spike, in 2005, when more soldiers rotate out of both countries, officials say.
"We've treated about 30,000 or 35,000 veterans of the war against terrorism, and they are in the network that is going to be taking care of about 5 million veterans," said Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the VA in Washington. "That should not strain the system."
But veterans say it does.
Ganzeveld says he cannot work and his condition puts pressure on his marriage and young family.
"My wife is at her wits' end dealing with me and dealing with the VA,' Ganzeveld said. "I mean, let's do something about my problems. They won't do anything without being kicked in the rear and scooted along."
Veterans groups are outraged. A presidential campaign event at the American Legion Fort Dearborn Post on Oct. 18 was interrupted by veterans who shouted questions at Dingell about when they would receive necessary medical services.
In Metro Detroit, the backlog of claims is 6,984, and 1,400 new cases are filed each month. There are two VA hospitals in southeast Michigan, one in Detroit and one in Ann Arbor.
"They are treated like dogs when they get home," said Dingell, who had already sent an official letter of inquiry to the secretary of the Army before he was confronted.
"I am trying to get the numbers on how much the VA is short of money. There is some claim that the entire VA has been underfunded in recent years by $9 billion. The two hospitals in Michigan are $2 million and $9 million short."
As Nate Ganzeveld marched along the road to Baghdad, witnessing the carnage of war, he said he had no idea his welcome home would be anything like this.
"We saw a lot of death on the road," he said of the march north to Baghdad, and eventually Tikrit, with the first wave of Marines. When truckloads of Iraqis violated security perimeters that Ganzeveld and his fellow reservists provided to protect strategic areas, his job was to "light them up with machine guns."
"And the driver and the passenger of the vehicles would be just slumped over the steering wheel and like bullet holes all in the windshield and blood and brain matter splattered, you know - it just sticks out in my mind, and it always will," said Ganzeveld. "It causes a problem sleeping at night and stuff like that, just in my day-to-day life. It's tough to function."
His first month home was happy, Ganzeveld said. Then his problems started. He often feels violent urges around people. He worries he might harm his family. He knows he should not enter a workplace.
"Right now, they gave him some help for the post-traumatic stress disorder," said Phil Smith, director of veterans and family services in Michigan for the Vietnam Veterans of America. "But all of his other issues are deferred - sleep apnea, insomnia, physical dysfunction, memory loss, headaches, his back."
Ganzeveld has now waited for more than five months, about 170 days, just to hear what the VA will do to help him with anything beyond weekly psychiatric counseling.
"I still have headaches. I can't sleep," Ganzeveld said. "Phil (Smith) and I have to chase them down, now, to say, 'Why are you deferring me on everything?'."
Citing federal law, VA officials refused to discuss specific individual cases. But both in Washington and Detroit, officials said they are trying to improve services.
"Am I overly pleased with the way things are? No. We need to make more improvements," said Darryl Brady, service center manager for the VA in the Detroit regional office.
Brady said that the average claim is pending for 111 days in Metro Detroit, a decline of about 50 days in a year.
"The big focus is to try to get that down to less than 90 days," Brady said.
Promises not kept
Veterans say the delays are intolerable, especially when they were promised far better service.
Marine Cpl. Chuck McCall of Dearborn says that after he was discharged from service in Iraq, he waited twice in VA offices in Detroit for a total of 14 hours before anyone saw him. Then he was denied benefits. McCall says VA officials told him that he earned too much money fighting in Iraq to qualify.
"After mentioning this to several other people who work at the VA and who represent veterans, I was informed that was not the case, that I'd been misrepresented and jacked around by the administrative staff that was dealing with me," McCall said. "I was promised that after my service I would have two years of free medical care."
McCall is appealing his case.
Older veterans say the long delays and the influx of cases from veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are causing them problems, too.
After fighting his way through the islands of the Pacific for four years of World War II, Joe McNulty, 80, of Dearborn Heights, says he finally needed assistance from the VA this year. McNulty said he has been stymied repeatedly because of problems with a camera that takes pictures for VA benefit cards.
"You go down there and it's nothing," McNulty said. "They don't even tell you there's not film in the camera. They don't tell you the camera's broke. They just turn you away."
VA officials in Detroit say the problems with the camera lasted for a number of weeks this year, but it is now fixed.
As Ganzeveld listens to McNulty talk, he says he has heard it all before.
"I know what Joe's saying," Ganzeveld said. "Whenever you go down there, it's always something. That camera is always broken. They just don't want to deal with us."