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Home from war, veterans face battle with VA

Overloaded resources result in much red tape

Dawn Halfaker had to explain to her clinician that, besides other maladies, she was missing an arm.

HBO

Dawn Halfaker had to explain to her clinician that, besides other maladies, she was missing an arm.

WASHINGTON — Army Sergeant Jeremy Barnhart says anyone wanting to know what it is like to deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs can get a clue from the FedEx packages that land on the front porch of his San Antonio home.

They tell him when to show up for mental health assessments that help determine his benefits eligibility. If the time conflicts with his college classes, a VA benefit helping him prepare for a new career, he cannot change the appointment by phone, he said. He can only call to say it will not work, and wait for another package giving him his new time.

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Separately, he has been trying without success to see a VA neurologist for review of a brain injury incurred in a grenade attack in Iraq, he said. These efforts have been going on since he left the military, in April 2011.

‘‘How many circles do I have to run in to get the care that I need?’’ said Barnhart, 39, who served as a medic and is studying to become a physician’s assistant. “It’s a powerless feeling to be in a system like this.’’

President Obama has pledged to serve veterans ‘‘as well as they’ve served us.’’ Yet to veterans like Barnhart, the VA’s bureaucracy can bring more agony than reward.

The agency is staggering under backlogs in disability compensation claims, bottlenecks in mental health care, and criticism over accountability.

‘‘The system is completely overwhelmed,’’ Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist and associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, said in a phone interview. ‘‘We did not prepare the VA system for what many of us would argue is the natural consequence of combat and protracted warfare, and we’re trying to play catch-up.’’

About 896,000 disability compensation and pension claims were pending recently, almost double the cases on Oct. 31, 2009. Two-thirds have been in the system more than 125 days. Less than half of veterans receive full mental health evaluations within two weeks of contacting the agency for care, according to an April review by the department’s inspector general’s office. For the remainder, it takes an average of about 50 days to get an exam.

Since the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2010, the agency rejected more than 50 percent of applicants seeking certification as veteran-owned small businesses. The program provides help to veterans who want a piece of $530 billion in contract revenue. Some owners say they were rejected for reasons that made little sense.

Josh Taylor, an agency spokesman, declined to arrange an interview with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki or Deputy Secretary Scott Gould to comment on this story. He said he cannot comment on individual cases without a privacy waiver.

By using technology and ‘‘a dedicated workforce,’’ the VA ‘‘is boldly transforming itself in healthcare and benefits delivery, and in memorial affairs, to better serve all veterans,’’ Shinseki said this month.

Obama pledged to improve veterans’ access to health care and jobs in a speech in Virginia, saying he ‘‘won’t let up’’ in addressing the backlog of veterans’ disability claims.

The VA budget more than doubled to $125.3 billion in the past decade, while its full-time staff has risen 43 percent to 319,592 since 2002. Obama requested about $140 billion for the agency in fiscal 2013, which would make the VA one of a few big winners in an austere budget environment.

The administration also put the VA off-limits to $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration.

‘‘My administration has made it clear,’’ Obama said at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno last July. ‘‘Your veterans’ benefits are exempt from sequestration.’’

Dawn Halfaker, an Army captain who lost an arm in 2004 during an attack in Iraq, said the VA has a “culture problem,’’ with some employees too distant from veterans’ struggles and too dependent on paperwork and processes.

Halfaker, 33, recalled meeting with a clinician at a VA medical center in Washington as part of the process to determine the compensation she would receive for her disabilities. He read from a sheet that noted she had suffered burns, lung damage, broken ribs, and other injuries.

She reminded him she was also missing her right arm.

‘‘He said, ‘Well, I don’t have that down here,’ ” said Halfaker, who owns an Arlington, Va.-based consulting business. ‘‘I’m very clearly an amputee, but it has become such a bureaucratic system that this individual didn’t really have the wherewithal to realize what was going on in front of him.’’

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