The department is under fire nationally for being slow to process claims, especially as veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars seek help. Nationally, the VA processed 1 million claims last year, a record number, but far behind the 1.3 million requests received. The agency is overhauling an outdated, paper-reliant process and going to a streamlined, digital system designed to reduce the processing time for claims from 254 days to 125 days and reduce the error rate to 2 percent by 2015.
But the situation in Central Texas -- home to one of the largest veteran populations in the nation -- is especially dire, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Not only was the Waco office slow to process claims, nearly one in five they completed contained errors, forcing veterans into appeals that can take years to resolve.
Texas, which also has a claims office in Houston, is home to the second-largest population of veterans in the country after California. The Waco office caters to Bell County -- where Fort Hood is located -- and has more disabled veterans than Houston. Its 17.5 percent error rate is the eighth worst of 56 offices nationwide.
During the claims process, government officials evaluate medical, service and financial records and assign a disability percentage, or rating, to veterans, providing them with a monthly stipend and unlocking access to a variety of low-interest loans, and most importantly, free medical care.
"I've seen some veterans who have almost lost their homes while they wait for VA claims to be granted," said Williamson County Veterans Service officer Donna Harrell, one of the many county employees statewide who assist veterans through the claims process. "The level of frustration is very high out there."
The offices in Waco and Houston, like others across the country, say they are feeling the pressures of a weak economy, aging veterans, rising numbers of young veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and new rules that make it easier to file claims.
"Our employees are anxiously engaged in processing claims as promptly, accurately and compassionately as possible," Waco VA officials said in a written statement. "Our strategic initiatives seek to improve the quality and timeliness of benefits delivery."
State leaders have promised $1.5 million to help deal with the backlog, but that money, which will pay for more counselors, is expected to make only a small dent in the nearly 70,000 severely delayed claims in Texas.