Veterans are waiting years for their injury claims to be answered by the VA. When they do get answers, those answers are often no. These are problems the Veterans Administration says they've been fixing these past two years.
The Army Achievement Medal for heroism can do little to dull the pain Sergeant James Creamer faces every day. In 1999, Sergeant Creamer's helicopter crashed in the jungles of Honduras during hurricane relief work. Once he returned home, his true battle began, filing for disability claims with the Veterans Administration.
"This actual claim took a total of seven years. Seven years," recalled Creamer.
Creamer received hope when the first letter he received agreed with his account of injuries he suffered during the crash. Five months later - another letter with a far different message.
Creamer read from the letter, "’There is no evidence or record documenting this accident even occurred.’ How can the same gentleman sign two pieces of paper saying ‘yes, the crash occurred,’ and ‘no the crash never even happened?’"
The Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, is split into two parts. The VA Health Administration system runs nationwide hospitals and clinics, including the one in Columbus. The Veterans Benefits Administration, or VBA acts much like an insurance company, deciding how much disability coverage each veteran receives. 10 Investigates gathered some local veterans and asked them what words come to mind about their battles to get service benefits.
Air Force veterans Michael Moehl and Steve Swiger responded with "Anger. Fear." Veteran Gerald Smolak said of the VA, "They have some of the best people in the world out there. The administration though, needs to go."
Swiger explained a problem that multiple other veterans told 10 Investigates. When the Veterans Benefits Administration didn't pay for Swiger's treatments - he was stuck with the bill.
"I got a letter from the Attorney General’s Office. They snagged my state tax for this bill the VA was supposed to pay," said Swiger.
The problems are not confined to Ohio. 10 Investigates talked to doctors nationwide, including one in Pittsburgh who says they are having similar difficulties with the VA. Dr. John Zitelli is one of the nation's top skin cancer experts. He used to regularly see veteran patients, including some from Ohio, until the V-A fell far behind on its bills.
"Over $140,000,” explained Dr. Zitelli. "Until we get this right, we're not going to see VA patients."
10 Investigates asked Dr. Zitelli what he would tell the head of the Veterans Administration. "I'd tell him that he needs to get his billing office and clientele better training."
10 Investigates took Dr. Zitelli’s message, and the message of other veterans to the Secretary of the Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald. To answer the doctor's concerns, Secretary McDonald says a new billing system should enable the VA to pay private medical specialists on time, allowing them to see more veteran patients.
"It's happening right now. We've already started the process of a central business office," Secretary McDonald said. As for the veterans waiting years for disability claims, the VA Secretary had this to say:
"We have had a backlog of disability claims for some time. That backlog has been at record levels. We now have it down. It's down about 70% or so. We down to around 190,000 or less that have been with us 125 days or longer. Our commitment is to get that down to zero by the end of the year."
That, though, varies by region. In Ohio, for example, VA records show that the average time to get disability claims in averages around 183.5 days.
Veterans can compare delays at various VA centers by going to http://www.app.hospitalcompare.va.gov/index.cfm
But Sergeant Creamer's disability claim was already rejected by the VA despite his local doctor's medical opinion. The VA tells 10 Investigates they consider Sergeant Creamer's back injury "age related." But two numbers may conflict with that judgement. Creamer is 45 years old but dropped more than 380 feet in the helicopter crash. Sergeant Creamer has a medal to show for his injuries, and a cane.
"It hurts me because the flag that I fought for, I cried for, I bled for, it doesn't matter to them," said Creamer.
Any changes to the Veterans Administration would likely run through the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. A list of which members of Congress are on that committee and how to reach them is linked here.