Changes are coming to Veterans Affairs offices across the country this year to speed up the care and support veterans need. Concerns about delays in processing claims for disability benefits led to a government study.
Local veterans say getting the help they need has been a slow and painful process. That is exactly what the study found, and now, because of the study, changes are on the way.
Army veteran Brian Hislop works part-time as a custodian at American Legion Post 26 in downtown Bakersfield. He said he would like to work full-time, but can't.
Hislop filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for hernia surgery and he's still waiting, six months later.
"It seems like they put you out, well, six weeks, six weeks, six weeks. I'm getting to the age where I don't have too many six weeks left," said Hislop.
There is no veterans hospital in Kern County. Many local vets are forced to go to Los Angeles for help, where it takes an average of 318 days to process a claim.
"It's a complete slap in the face for these men and women who have sacrificed so much to give all of us the freedoms that we enjoy. And, just to treat them this way is a little disingenuous," said Dick Taylor, Director of the Kern County Veterans Service Center.
"We have this huge inundation of new veterans coming from Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. They're absolutely overwhelmed," he continued.
Over the past four years, the VA has seen a 50 percent increase in claims. Here at home, we're seeing a similar trend.
In 2008, the Kern County Veterans Service Center assisted 17,000 veterans. Last year, that number jumped to 30,000.
"Even just five years ago, it was not unusual to tell a veteran maybe it would be six months and then it moved to like nine to 12 months. And, now it's not unusual for us to tell a veteran sometimes 15 to 24 months," explained Taylor.
In October 2011, more than 20 congressmen, including Bakersfield's Kevin McCarthy, demanded an audit of the Los Angeles VA office.
"We requested a study and what we found was shocking to me," said McCarthy.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office studied four VA offices across the nation and responded with an 84-page report. "The VA said they have improved. They have not. This is unacceptable," said McCarthy.
The study found unreliable wait times and an outdated and inefficient scheduling system. "They have recommendations for changes and we're going to follow through with this," continued McCarthy.
The Government Accountability Office has asked the VA to revise the scheduling policy to implement more reliable wait time measures and improve and standardize its electronic wait list. The office also asked the VA to routinely assess scheduling needs, ensure staff is distributed to meet access standards, and improve telephone access.
Three of those recommendations are scheduled to be completed later this year, and one had no completion date listed.