U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Cleveland office one of slowest for processing disability claims

CLEVELAND - If you're a veteran in Ohio, be prepared to be patient.

A NewsChannel5 investigation found the Cleveland Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the slowest in the nation when it comes to processing veterans' disability benefit claims.

It took the Cleveland office an average of 464 days to process a disability claim, according to the VA's Aug. 26 weekly compilation of performance measures. The U.S. average was 376 days, almost three months less time than in Cleveland.

NewsChannel5 investigators also found 43 out of the 56 regional VA offices processed claims more quickly than the Cleveland office, including seven out of eight offices with more pending claims than Cleveland.

For example, there were 33,138 pending claims in the Houston regional office. It takes the office an average of 351 days to complete a claim. As of Aug. 26, there were 23,358 pending claims in the Cleveland office.

"You just have to wait," said Sgt. William Blessing. "My initial claim was in October 2011."

The Army National Guardsman has severe back and knee injuries, and is in constant pain as the result of an accident in Afghanistan. The Barberton resident received his first check from the VA on Sept. 6.

It came in the nick of time. His house was on the verge of foreclosure.

"You're frustrated, but there's nothing you can do about it," he said.

"We all recognize veterans are waiting too long for claims decisions," said Joyce Cange, the director of the Cleveland regional office.

"It is our passion and it is our plan to drive that number down and get quick decisions with high quality," she said.

She said her staff prioritizes their oldest claims, which can drive up the average number of days it takes to complete a claim.

Cange and Beth McCoy, the assistant deputy undersecretary for field operations, allowed NewsChannel5 investigators inside the Cleveland regional office to discuss why vets' claims take so long to process.

"There are many factors," McCoy said. "Some of them include the fact that we're at war for 10 years. We have a difficult economy. Folks are looking for benefits and assistance."

There are also more vets who can ask for assistance.

In 2009, the VA expanded eligibility to thousands of veterans affected by PTSD and Agent Orange. Jeannie Soley's husband was one of those veterans.

"He spent 21 years in the Marine Corps. Vietnam vet… He loved the corps," she said.

John Soley was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer linked to exposure to Agent Orange. He filed his first disability claim in May 2010. In October 2012, he passed way. His claim was still being processed.

"It's what my husband was entitled to and not just my husband, but all those veterans that have served this country honorably," Soley said.

"We sent a man to the moon. We should be able to figure out how to make things simpler," said U.S. Rep Jim Renacci (R-OH16.)

Renacci said his office regularly receives calls from frustrated vets waiting for claims decisions. He said the VA needs to be more efficient.

"When we have veterans that are willing to put their life on the line, men and women, we need to make sure when they come back, they're taken care of," he said.

Renacci has held two forums in northeast Ohio this year to give veterans a chance to voice their concerns.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has also addressed the issue. He's held several roundtable discussions around the state with vets and their supporters.

Cange said the VA has made changes that should reduce the time it takes to process vets claims, including moving from paper to electronic records and mandatory overtime.

"We are going to improve those numbers and they are going to look better every month," she said.

The VA plans to process all claims within 125 days by 2015.

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