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Veteran waits out perfect storm to receive benefits

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A perfect storm is how some are describing the tremendous backlog of veterans who are waiting for their service disability benefits.

This perfect storm has claimed lives, if the reports are true about the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix that had a secret list for treating vets in need of medical care. But for a San Marcos vet we've been following for almost a year, the storm isn't fatal but he and 319,000 other vets are still trying to get through it.

When we first met Miles Nelson eight months ago he had been waiting about 639 days to receive his VA disability benefits.

He fought through Fallujah with the marines in Iraq, and he's still fighting. When we followed up with him last week his total wait time tally was about 882 days. That’s well over the VA's definition of 125 days to be considered a part of the backlog. Miles is a vet of combat and now he's a vet of the backlog.

"At times its mind numbing. I mean all the paperwork, just filling out the forms I did now it's like they are designed to make people give up," Miles said.

Miles isn't giving up, he and his veteran's service officer in Hays County are getting help from the Texas Veteran's Commission Strike Force Team. James Richman heads up the program which speeds up the claims process by working with the VA on difficult cases. They are now working on Miles’ case.

"Something that has always not been right in my opinion, his case was originally in Philadelphia and brokered in Houston. If you live in Texas your case should be handled in Texas," Richman said.

One reason Miles' case is moving so slowly is simply too much paperwork and bad communication.

"If I’d gotten an email instead of a letter to the wrong address, even though they had my new address because all my other VA mail was going there. The letter that told me they were still working on my claim went to the new address a week before the letter telling me about my appointment went to the old address," Miles said.

During his 882 day wait Miles claim was actually cancelled. Texas Senator John Cornyn's office had to step in to get miles claim re-opened.

FOX 7 spoke with the senator about that from Washington.

"What really irritates me is that people like Mr. Nelson have to contact a senator's office to get the attention and service they deserve."

The senator calls the VA claims backlog a perfect storm, and this part of what he means. The VA is getting claims from all sides --older vets with new claims as they age, new claims from Vietnam vets recently allowed to seek help for agent orange-related conditions. Claims from first Gulf War vets, and then the Iraq/Afghanistan vets who are filing at a higher percentage, and individual vets are filing more medical conditions, which many say is related to multiple deployments.

The VA sent us some information on their backlog progress. They say nationally it's down 48 percent and in the Houston office it's down 60 percent from its highest point in August 2012.

They continue to move to digital formats to replace the reams of paper files like the tons of files that actually gave a North Carolina office building structural problems.

Now the VA wouldn’t grant us an interview about Miles' case. They did confirm they initially denied his claim for lack of evidence and that they are ready to accept new evidence to support his claim. And that's the kind of response that has Senator Cornyn repeatedly calling for new action.

"We need to quit small patches and get along to go along. We need to do a wholesale review and it needs to be done now and the President needs to pick a point person who will make sure all federal agencies in the executive branch are focused on this like a laser," Cornyn said.

And it's not like the money isn't there. The VA's budget has been increased 40 percent since 2009 and they are working with state veteran's organizations. In fact the Texas Veteran’s Commission Strike Force Teams office is inside the VA's Waco office.

"Make no mistake. The VA does great work, they just don't do it very fast."

Miles Nelson can attest to that, he's trying to stay patient...he's got no choice.

"Yeah...I get frustrated a lot but all I think about is when this is all said and done I’ll get one hell of a back paycheck," Miles said.

Several senators including John Cornyn are calling for the Secretary of the VA John Shinseki to resign. The secretary has said the goal is to eliminate the back log by the end of 2015.

James Richard with the Texas Veteran's Commission doesn't believe that will happen as things stand now.

And here's some food for thought. This whole story about Miles is about his initial claim for benefits. If he's denied and he appeals, the average wait for the appeals backlog is 1,598 days.

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