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SALT LAKE CITY — They've served their country but their claims for help go untouched for days, months or even years.
Veterans seeking help for war-related injuries wait nearly 400 days on average for their claims to even be processed by Department of Veterans Affairs. Salt Lake City's office has one of the worst backlogs in the nation and it's only growing.
The secretary of the VA visited Utah Tuesday and pledged to fix the problem by 2015, but some say it's a promise they've heard before.
"It's an absolute catastrophe," said Aaron Glantz, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting. "You're wounded from the war and the government is not holding up its end of the deal, which is if you get hurt we will help you."
Glantz and the Center for Investigative Reporting discovered more than 700,000 veterans nationwide are waiting months or years for the VA to process their claims. Those claims aren't just for broken bones; they're for illnesses like cancer or post traumatic stress disorder.
You're wounded from the war and the government is not holding up its end of the deal, which is if you get hurt we will help you.
"It's tragic," said Larry Dawson with the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs. "It's tragic that they have to wait so long."
In Utah more than 23,000 veterans are waiting for help for an average of 357 days. Of those waiting, 73 percent have been waiting four months or longer, and 22 percent have been waiting longer than a year.
"Today veterans, including those here in Utah, wait too long to receive the benefits they have earned," said Eric Shinseki, secretary of the VA. "That has never been acceptable."
Shinseki attributes the backlog to a number of things: more new vets returning from war, more older vets filing new claims and an outdated system.
"We were a paperbound process," Shinseki said, adding that the paper-centered process is changing.
"We are turning off the spigots of paper," he said. "We're deploying a new paperless digital disability claims processing system called VBMS — the Veterans Benefits Management System."
The $500 million system allows vets to file claims online. Salt Lake City was one of two test sites for the program. It's now in every VA office.
- Make sure all paperwork is filled out properly
- Make sure to include documentation proving they served and were injured in war
- Do as much research as possible so the VA has little to do in order to process a claim
"We intend to eliminate the backlog in 2015," Shinseki said. "That really means no claim taking longer than 125 days to process.
Shinseki said all Utah claims older than two years are finally through the system and he has ordered all claims officers to work overtime to clear the backlog.
However, Glantz still has his doubts, having heard the promise once before.
"They are trying belatedly to turn things around and it's an open question as to whether or not they are up to the challenge," he said.
Until the system succeeds in diminishing the backlog, Glantz said there are steps veterans can take to try and speed up the process.
First, he said make sure all paperwork is filled out properly. Second, veterans should make sure to include documentation proving they served and were injured in war. Glantz also recommended veterans do as much research as possible so the VA has little to do in order to process a claim.
Contributing: Sandra Yi