Iowa veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq wait, on average, more than 10 months for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process their health and benefits claims.

Nearly 7,000 disabled veterans overseen by the Des Moines Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Office are waiting an average of 313 days on claims across the state, VA records show. That’s 18 percent longer than a year and a half ago, although records show that since 2000, there are fewer veterans in the state.

The problem is demand. It keeps going up as veterans return from duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, putting stress on the regional VA office and those who help the veterans obtain their disability benefits.

David “Woody” Woods, Scott County director of veterans affairs, said waits of more than a year without hearing anything about a claim is common. His local office is not part of the VA.

“We have a weekly meeting with (the VA) in Des Moines,” he said earlier this month, “and last week, they completed 650 cases. But another 1,500 came in the same week.”

One of the veterans Woods works with is Jason Kerr, who waited five years for just some of his claims to be approved. Kerr keeps a 25-pound stack of records from his 16-month deployment in Iraq in his pickup. The pile keeps growing.

The 38-year-old DeWitt machine-gun operator is not surprised his fellow veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are waiting so long for benefits to help cover their combat-related injuries.

Kerr waited five years.

“Everything I went to them for was found to be true,” Kerr said about the challenges he faced, proving he was entitled to benefits. “But this battle was harder to fight than the one in Iraq.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting has been collecting wait times this year for every VA regional center in the country for a series of reports about those waits. The times are reported by the VA.

IowaWatch, a nonprofit news organization that is part of the Investigative News Network that includes the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Quad-City Times, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, The Hawk Eye in Burlington and the Fort Dodge Messenger used that data to investigate further the waits in Iowa.

VA making changes

The 313-day wait time at the Des Moines regional office is among the longest in the Midwest. Only Chicago, at 458 days, and St. Louis, at 321 days, have longer waits. The national average is 277 days.

In addition, seven of every 10 benefits claims in Iowa is taking more than 125 days to process, about the same as the national average, data as of Dec. 17 show. Those who appeal a benefits denial can expect to wait more than three-and-a-half years — 1,321 days, on average —

for resolution, the data show.

The reports show accuracy, on the other hand, is 92.5 percent for the Des Moines office in the past 12 months, well above the national average of 86.4 percent.

The VA is well aware of the complaints, not just in Iowa but nationally.

“We recognize that too many veterans are waiting too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” the VA said in a prepared statement from the national headquarters that Joyleen Maravilla, the public affairs officer at the Des Moines VA Regional Office, provided. “That’s unacceptable, and that is why VA is building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system.”

Maravilla said 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking compensation for combat-related injuries, an all-time high.

She said that’s partly the result of VA efforts to make veterans more aware of benefits to which they may be entitled. The Des Moines regional office provides about $260 million in benefits to 270,000 Iowa veterans and oversees more than 100 employees.

Maravilla said new VA hires who have gone through a redesigned training program are completing 150 percent more claims per day at a 30 percent more accurate rate. All 56 regional VA offices plan to move from paper-based claims to a completely digital format by the end of 2013, which department officials hope will cut processing times in half.

“I know they’re trying,” Jodi Tymeson, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, said about efforts VA officials in the Des Moines center are making to hire and train more employees to deal with claims. “They don’t like the backlog.”

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An advocate helps

Iowa’s state veterans affairs department is part of a vast network that helps veterans with several matters, including working through the bureaucratic federal VA system that handles pension, health and disability claims.

“What we hope is that veterans feel they at least can talk to someone instead of an 800 number,” Tymeson said.

Veterans groups, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and local veterans commissions, also help those returning from overseas duty. In some cases, they have helped speed the process of getting veterans benefits. Tymeson’s office has three service officers, and all 99 counties and the various veterans groups have officers to help work through the benefits system as well.

Ken Dettbarn, 46, of rural Elkader, a retired Army chief warrant officer who suffered debilitating injuries in Iraq, said he didn’t experience any difficulty or delays following his application for disability benefits.

“I had an advocate who walked me through all the steps,” said Dettbarn, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, punctured lungs and more than a dozen broken bones in a Humvee rollover during his second tour in Iraq.

That advocate was Ralph Rosenberger, a state services officer employed by the VFW to help injured veterans navigate the paperwork required to secure disability benefits, said Dettbarn, whose nearly fatal injuries have affected his moods, memory, physical dexterity and comprehension.

It often takes almost two years for some veterans applying for VA disability benefits in Webster County, in western Iowa, to learn if their claims are approved.

“Typically, we tell everybody 13 to 16 months,” said Russ Naden, director of the Webster County Veterans Affairs Commission. “They’re backed up, I know that,” Naden said of the Des Moines office.

Jake Long, a 27-year-old combat veteran, has experienced delays at the Iowa City VA Health Care System getting treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder. But he knows that likely will be nothing compared to the wait he will face while anticipating word on his disability benefits.

“It’s just known all across the military: When you put your paperwork in through VA claims, don’t expect it for probably at least a year, a year to 18 months, usually,” Long said.

(This project was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news website dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work. The story was done in collaboration with the Quad-City Times, The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette, The (Burlington) Hawk Eye and the Fort Dodge Messenger.)