BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - In the past 12 months, President Barack Obama promised veterans that any benefits process should take no more than 180 days. WLOX News looked into the slow process two years ago. AJ Giardina decided to do an update to find out if the process is getting any better?
Over the next few days, we'll introduce you to veterans who have faced road blocks and serious problems in dealing with the Veterans Administration.
Two women told me their stories and the difficulties they experienced in even trying to set up doctor's appointments. Jessica Hinves and Heather Pitcovich both served our country. Hinves served four years in the Air Force and Pitcovich was in the Navy and was in charge of a recruiting office in North Carolina.
"I was in the military for over 16 years and actually was a transitional counselor for resources for veterans benefits," Pitcovich said. "I was discharged myself for PTST, medically retired, and filed my claim prior to my discharge. It took over a year for me to get that claim judicated."
"I was medically retired from the United States Air Force with a disability rate of 80 percent," Jessica Hinves said. "And, like Heather, we are both considered priority one, according to the VA scale, which means nobody should go ahead of us for medical care unless they are a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient."
Jessica said the VA continues losing her in the system and when she finally is recognized, there are even more problems.
"And every time I go to the Women's Clinic to be reentered into the system, I have to prove to them over and over again that I'm a veteran, which I find really offensive," she said.
Pitcovich said she's experienced the same issues.
"I'm finding problems with either the VA can't find my paperwork, or assistance with people on the telephone when I call. So I've been having to get help with that. My records are still showing up in a different state. It's been a year now that I've requested it to be transferred down to Jackson, Mississippi so I don't run into more problems when I do go to the VA for care."
Julia Encalade is the President of the Mississippi Association of the County Veterans Service Officer and is assisting veterans in filing their benefits.
"I guarantee you, if she owed taxes they would find her," Encalade said. "They would know exactly where she was at."
Encalade says she's been helping veterans file claims with the VA since 2007 and is presently assisting both Pitcovich and Hinves. She calls the filing process "difficult."
"A long journey and bombarded with paperwork. And then with the paperwork coming in, the different forms that are used are very confusing for the veterans. If they don't stay on top of their claim, because it is their claim, keep a calendar running, they're going to miss some time deadlines," she stated.
Encalade said she experienced the pitfalls of filing for benefits when her dad was forced to go through the long process. He died before those benefits came through.
"I still believe wholeheartedly the VA has the three D's: Delay, Deny, Death. Shouldn't say that, but that was my experience with my father and I still see them denying claims and veterans feeling that, "What about me?'"
"I did my duty to serve my country and gladly signed up for it. And it presently says on the VA Walls, 'To Him Has Born The Battle.' That is what the VA system is set up for, to care for him who has born the battle. And they are failing that on every level," Hinves said.
I reached out to the VA in Washington and was contacted by a media representative in Tennessee. She said the VA can not discuss individual cases, but she stressed they do whatever they can to help people.
One of the first things a veteran should do is to acquire all documents related to the veteran's claim. That claim should include: a copy of the veteran's administrative C-file through a Freedom of Information Act request before the VA Regional Office.
Obtain a complete copy of the veteran's Official Military Personnel File with the National Personnel Records Center, and obtain a copy of the veteran's medical treatment records from the VA Medical Center or private physician.
By the way, Hinves and Pitcovich also just had their story told in a national publication and say since then, they have been contacted by the VA and are now receiving special attention.
In part two of our special report, set to air Friday on WLOX News, a veteran's advocate shares what she calls the cold hard facts of getting processed.