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Reporter’s notebook: How to localize the story of veterans’ disability claims delays

Filed by KOSU News in Public Insight Network.
September 22, 2012

In August, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) published a map of Department of Veterans Affairs data they analyzed that tracked how long it’s taking the department to process disability claims at regional offices (VAROs) around the country. A small team of Public Insight Network reporters picked up the story and produced radio stories in collaboration with public radio stations WFYI in Indianapolis, KJZZ in Phoenix and KUOW in Seattle. We’ve created this reporting “cookbook” for reporters or editors interested localizing the story.

If you are interested in pursuing the story and have any questions at all, we’re happy to share more of what we learned. Send an email to jsguntzel@americanpublicmedia.org or call him directly at (651) 290-1226.

The story as we framed it

From our piece, After combat, a wait: Veterans face months of uncertainty on disability claims:

“American troops are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan only to wait in line. They’re joining a growing queue of veterans seeking compensation — payments and other support — from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-related disabilities.

 ”Across the country, local VA offices are having a tough time processing the backlog of more than 800,000 disability claims.

 ”In the meantime, veterans wait. It can take months — sometimes more than a year — to find out how much, if at all, they’ll be compensated for health issues related to their service.

“Most veterans filing those disability claims wait an average of 257 days, according to a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). The wait varies widely from state to state, making a veteran’s ability to secure critical assistance seem almost random. In the fastest offices, like in St. Paul, Minn., they can expect to receive word on their claims in just over 100 days. But travel to VA regional offices in New York, Indianapolis and Waco, Texas, and the wait can stretch to a year or more.”

It was important to us, when citing the national or local backlog of cases, not to say there are X number of “veterans waiting.” The numbers available publicly from the VA represent the number of claims waiting. Some veterans could have multiple claims, which means the number of veterans waiting will always be less than the number of claims waiting.

Finding your local data

You can find details for your local VARO at the CIR map. Backlog numbers are pulled from the ‘Final Aggregate” sheet on the VA’s Monday Morning Reports, which come out (as you might have guessed) every Monday. When you open a report, you’ll be on the “Transformation” sheet. You can switch between the sheets using the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet.

The Final Aggregate data we focused on is in the “Entitlement” section of the two “Compensation Inventory” tables. Just look for your VARO to find local data.

Up-to-date wait times for disability and other VA claims are available at the Department of Veterans Affairs public "Aspire" web site.

Up-to-date wait times for disability and other claims at regional offices around the country are available at the Department of Veterans Affairs public “Aspire” web site.

For average wait time and other useful numbers, you want to go to the VA’s not-very-intuitive “Aspire” system. Start here and click “Aspire dashboard for Benefits information.” Click “continue,” then “enter.”

Now you should see a table. Click on “Compensation” and then “Ratings Claim Processing Time (FYTD).” Now look for the “Location” drop-down menu at the top of the page and select your region. There you go.

Digging deeper

To go deep, be sure to read the inspection report on your VARO, published by the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG). You’ll find all OIG reports here. On the OIG reports page, select “View Reports” in the “Administrative Investigation Reports” section, which will take you to a page titled “Oversight Reports.”

On the right sidebar, click “Reset Filter.” Now click on the green “Report Location” drop down menu. Select your location. You are looking for a report titled “Inspection of the VA Regional Office, CITY, STATE.”

The OIG ended a three-year cycle of inspections, covering all VAROs, this month. And they are starting all over again in October.

Be cautious with what you read in these reports. Most of them begin with a statistic. We’ll take Indianapolis as an example. In the “What We Found” section, the report’s authors write:

“Overall, VARO staff did not correctly process 33 (41 percent) of the 80 disability claims we reviewed.”

It should go without saying that the percentage of incorrectly processed claims here can not be stripped from their context. For example, it would be careless and not factual to say “The Indianapolis VARO incorrectly processed 41 percent of disability claims.” It would also be careless to say “The Indianapolis VARO incorrectly processed 41 percent of disability claims reviewed.” The universe here was randomly selected, but it is a small universe.

It is, of course, a significant number, and it certainly has a place in the story. But rather than grabbing the first dramatic number that pops out, we recommend reading the entire report closely, jotting down sentences or terms that don’t make sense to you as a lay reader, and marking findings that seem to speak dramatically to the problems of that VARO. Then take all of that to the OIG and the VA. You should also feel free to bring your questions to us.

Getting the VA to talk (on or off the record)

Many VA stories include a sentence like, “the VA did not respond to requests for comment.” We got a little further than that, to: “The VA declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement…” It was a lot of work just to get that statement, and it didn’t come close to answering the long list of nuanced questions we sent well in advance.

It is best to call early, call often and call everybody. Keep track of each message you leave and each person you reach. Always try to get a PIO to give you a commitment that you can follow up on.

Be sure to have a few specific questions ready so the PIO can begin the process of finding answers. And don’t feel like you can only get information from a PIO — though in the end, they can be very helpful. Be willing to be a broken record, always asking to speak with somebody close to the day-to-day operations of claims processing (or whatever sliver of the story you’re tracking).

There are many PIOs in the VA system and you may get transferred from one to another. When you get a PIO on the phone, get their name, numbers, and ask them to tell you exactly who they represent (VA, VARO, OIG, etc.). Don’t be shy about going back to somebody if you get stuck.

Here are a few contacts who helped us:

Jo Schuda
VA Public Affairs Officer
Office: (202) 461-7547
Cell: (202) 577-3853
josephine.schuda@va.gov

Catherine Gromek
Congressional Relations Officer/PIO
VA Office of the Inspector General
(202) 461-4527

Querying for vets

We’ve published a query to collect the stories of veterans working their way through the VA system: What’s your experience with veterans’ disability claims? If you are a full Public Insight Network partner, you can steal this query from the PIN Partners section of Formbuilder.

Stories we produced (radio)

We prepared a 90 second newser for WFYI in Indianapolis and KJZZ in Phoenix, with a callout at the end for veterans and their families to look at our query. Click here to listen to the Indianapolis audio.

Here’s the Indianapolis script:

<HOST INTRO:> The Veterans Affairs office in Indianapolis has one of the nation's longest average wait times for processing veterans' disability benefits. Jeff Severns Guntzel of the Public Insight Network reports

<JSG:> VA data examined by the Center for Investigative Reporting shows the average wait for disability claims processing in Indianapolis is three hundred and sixty five days. Indianapolis has a backlog of nearly twenty thousand claims. 

Rich Rudnik is with the National Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit that helps veterans and their families navigate the VA.

<RICH RUDNICK:> "Our hands are tied. Getting an answer from the VA about what is going on with a claim is one of the hardest things to do. We get calls from people who say I've been waiting for four months or I filed my claim eight months ago or I've had an appeal in for 10 month and, you know, what's going on?"

<JSG:> A recent report by the VA's Inspector General provides part of an answer. An inspection of the Indianapolis office found "inaccuracies in processing," "incorrectly interpreted policy," "use of inadequate medical examinations," and other issues contributing to the delays.

Starting next year, Indianapolis will pilot a new computer system intended to improve *both* accuracy and the speed of the claims process. Currently veterans' benefits claims are handled the old fashioned way -- with paper files moving from desk to desk.

For WFYI News, I'm Jeff Severns Guntzel from the Public Insight Network.

<HOST OUTRO:> If YOU are a veteran working your way through the VA system, or you know somebody who is, we'd like YOUR HELP COVERING THIS STORY. You can share your experiences at WFYI dot org slash veterans.

We also produced a national overview radio piece that stations can use as they see fit to set up call-in talk shows or local interviews on the topic. Click here to listen to it.

Stories we produced (web)

Happy to help

If you are interested in pursuing the story and have any questions at all, we’re happy to share more of what we learned. Send an email to jsguntzel@americanpublicmedia.org or call him directly at 651-290-1226.

Next week: tips on fact checking veteran sources.

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