In a recent report to members of Congress, Allison Hickey – the Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary – reported that St. Petersburg reduced its backlog of claims that are older than two years. The St. Petersburg RO did have 1,800 claims over two years old in March. Now the number is twenty-eight. While the VA trumpets this as a success (and admittedly it is an improvement), it seems premature to applaud the St. Petersburg office for taking care of veterans who have waited over two years. It would be like applauding someone for obeying traffic laws. It’s something St. Petersburg should have done anyway. While reducing the backlog is good news, the St. Petersburg VA claims backlog leads the nation in claims pending over 125 days.
Many veterans in Florida are struggling financially, and this is especially true given how hard Florida was hit when the real estate bubble collapsed and the equity many veterans thought they had accrued in their homes disappeared. So, the two year backlog was especially flagrant.
While the St. Petersburg RO was processing VA claims that were over two years old, the number of claims over 125 days old increased from 32,664 to 35,658. The Tampa Tribune reported last Thursday, July 18, that the St. Petersburg regional VA office leads the nation in claims pending for 125 days or more. Hickey explained that one reason for the large backlog is the large veteran population living in Florida.
The total number of claims pending at the St. Petersburg Office increased from 46,616 to 50,347. So, while the most strikingly mismanaged cases (which never should have existed in the first place) are cleared from the books, the total number of veterans waiting for claims processing continues to climb.
Veterans who are experiencing financial hardship are supposed to receive expedited treatment; but, “financial hardship” is an elastic phrase. It is worthwhile to compare a veteran who is about to have a car repossessed with a veteran who is about to be evicted and homeless. Both are experiencing “financial hardship”, but one must take priority over the other. So, while the Regional Office policy is that veterans feeling financial hardship will receive expedited treatment, the details are important about how St. Petersburg implements that policy. Both need speedy assistance, but one will necessarily have to wait for the other. Multiply this thinking times 10,000 and you get an idea of how a financial hardship request may be treated – or ignored.
In any event, veterans whose claims are being processed in St. Petersburg should be very skeptical of the alleged successes the regional office reports.
If you are facing a VA claim decision delay or need assistance with a VA benefits claim, we are here to help. Call Veterans Help Group at (800) 953-6224 or complete our free veterans benefits case evaluation form.