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VA Tries To Speed Compensation For Disabled Veterans In NC

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Marine veteran Evan John, his dog Zoey and wife Becky align=left

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Scores of veterans are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to get a job. But the backlog to get VA disability benefits is thousands of claims deep, so veterans often wait a year to get compensation. Meanwhile, their marriages suffer and they fall behind on their bills. VA officials in North Carolina are taking a new approach to reduce that backlog. Evan John is so afraid of crowds that he only shops at Wal-Mart in the middle of the night. Mostly he stays in his small Charlotte apartment reading or playing soccer video games. "I imagined I'd be able to transition into civilian life a little better than I did, you know?" says John. The transition happened in 2007 when John returned from a second deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines Weapons Company. An explosion that killed another Marine left John with multiple injuries. PTSD and severe anxiety make him unable to hold a job. His medical file is inches thick. As soon as he got home, John applied for disability benefits from the VA, but it would be nine months before the $1,400 monthly checks would start coming. Meanwhile, he had $800 a month in military separation pay and his credit cards. At one point he was almost $15,000 in debt. That nine month wait just didn't seem reasonable. "Not at all," says John. "But I've heard it's so much worse now." Veterans advocate Jim Strickland tells the people they'll wait 18 to 24 months before they get a decision on their first claim. He lives in Georgia and runs the site VAwatchdogtoday.org. In the last year, the backlog of disability claims at the VA has grown from half a million to more than 800,000 today. VA officials point to two main reasons: the wave of young veterans coming home injured; and new rules that allow Vietnam veterans to apply for more compensation from Agent Orange exposure. A major bottleneck in the disability claims process is the need for a Compensation and Pension exam - or C and P for short. The exams happen at VA hospitals and clinics around the country, but they're no ordinary physical. Dr. Miguel LaPuz is chief of staff at the VA Hospital in Salisbury. He says the C and P exam is a "forensic examination to establish when the condition came about." These exams can take hours, pouring over every detail of a veteran's medical record and service history, says LaPuz. Last summer, the number of veterans waiting for a C and P exam in the VA's Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network doubled to 7,000. "That was wholly unacceptable," says VA Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network director Dan Hoffman. His was one of the larger backlogs in the country, partly because North Carolina has so many large military bases. "The number was so high for us we had to try something very, very different," says Hoffman. He settled on a blitz. For one full week in March, every VA hospital and clinic in the region dedicated 80 percent of its appointments to C and P exams. They did 2,000. Hoffman hopes for similar results with another blitz next week, and again in May. At that point, the region's C and P backlog could be gone. "If we hit that figure I will be absolutely tickled to death," says Hoffman. "And we're on track to do that." VA health directors struggling with their own backlogs around the country are watching closely. Veterans advocate Jim Strickland says he was initially skeptical, "but the more I thought about it, the more I thought this was a unique and innovative approach. That they were at least trying to do something." However, Strickland warns the effort will have little effect on the overall wait-time for veterans if those exam results are merely sent to the VA central office and shuffled right back into the larger claims backlog. A number of pilot programs are underway to fix the backlog on a national level. The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs says it's a priority. But the list of veterans awaiting compensation for their injuries grows longer by the day.