Jackie in the News
In S.F., wounded veterans demand action from VA
San Francisco Chronicle
More than 200 veterans, from an old man who stormed Normandy to a young man who invaded Baghdad, came together Monday in San Francisco with a common purpose: getting the government to pay for their wounds.
A severe backlog of disability claims, which hit Northern Californians especially hard, prompted Reps. Jackie Speier and Barbara Lee to hold a public forum at the War Memorial Veterans Building, where they demanded better service from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The event was part scolding and part workshop. VA officials stationed claims representatives at seven tables, where they met with some of the more than 200 people who signed up in an attempt to get their cases completed.
As of Monday, 65 percent of all disability claims from veterans nationwide - a total of 566,000 - had been pending for at least 125 days. The delays have been especially long in the Northern California regional office in Oakland, where agency auditors have also found accuracy problems.
"You have our pledge here today - we will fix the Oakland VA," Speier, D-Hillsborough, said during the forum, which became tense at times as veterans shouted at VA officials and recounted their difficulties in filing claims.
The agency's Western area director, Willie Clark, told the audience that claims had jumped 48 percent in the past four years, to 1.3 million in 2011.
The increase is due to 10 years of war, he said, and the 2010 decision by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to add heart disease, Parkinson's disease and leukemia to the conditions that, when found in Vietnam War veterans, should be presumed as effects of Agent Orange exposure.
"Now, that's our problem, not your problem," Clark told the veterans. "We have to find a better way to get better, and we are getting better."
Clark said additional hiring and training in Oakland had allowed the office to speed approvals and lift its accuracy rate on claims from 80 to 88 percent in recent months. The goal, he said, is to reach 98 percent by 2015, with no claims pending after 125 days.
Lee, D-Oakland, responded that "2015 is way too far out."
Among those who lined up to see a claims representative was Jason Myers, 31, of Glen Ellen, a Marine Corps veteran who did three tours in Iraq. He described some of the dozens of injuries he suffered, including post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury from a bomb.
Myers, a full-time student at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University, said he had been having trouble breathing, which he attributed to the ever-present smoke from fires in Iraq.
More than a year ago, he said, he filed a disability claim that asked for the breathing problem to be declared service-related, which would force the government to pay for his medical care. He is still waiting for an answer.
"I'm not here because I'm pissed off," Myers said. "I'm just trying to get it done."
Also looking for resolution was Jake Ventrello, 93, of South San Francisco, an Army veteran who said he had taken part in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and now is in a wheelchair.
His friend June Canter of Daly City said Ventrello filed a claim in October 2010 in which he sought to raise his compensation. Speier's office helped him finally get an answer from VA earlier this year, but the agency wanted Ventrello to see his doctors again.
"They wanted to see if he had improved," Canter said. "Are you kidding me? If they would have noticed he was 93, they would know he's not improving."
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