BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The Veterans Administration spent $500 million on a computerized Veterans Benefits Management System that was intended to streamline the benefits process.
But according to a February 2013 report by the Office of the Inspector General, the computerized system has no implementation plan, and is riddled with problems.
The OIG concluded that given the slow and complex nature of this transition from paper to computers, the VA will continue to face challenges in meeting its goal of eliminating the backlog of disability claims by 2015.
The federal report says in January, the VA trimmed the backlog of claims by more than a third to 400,000 cases after the VA included mandatory overtime for claims processors, installed an automated processing system, and tackled the old cases first.
The government's effort to cut a backlog of pending compensation claims is still considered by the inspector general to be taking too long, which is more than 180 days.
Julia Encalade, President of the Mississippi Association of the County Veterans Service, is assisting veterans in filing their benefits claims. Her office is located in the Biloxi Courthouse on Martin Luther King.
One of the first things a veteran is told to do is call the 1-800 number. Does it work?
"I can't stand the 1-800 number," Encalade said. "1-800-827-1000. It's a National Call Center. You might talk to somebody in Arizona. You're in Mississippi, and you want to talk to somebody in Mississippi about your claim. We shouldn't be talking to anybody in Arizona. The call back turnaround time, I wish there was an easy fix, but there is not at this point in time."
Veteran Jessica Hinves said she too gets frustrated when it comes to the National Call Center.
"We keep getting tossed around to different clinics and eventually to the 800-hotline that Heather was mentioning, which leads to nowhere," Hinves said.
As we have reported, veteran Heather Pitcovich, who medically retired after 16-years in the military, is one of those who has had to battle to get her benefits.
"I contacted Julia at the Veterans Service office to get assistance with filing a disagreement," said Pitcovich. "I filed that disagreement, however I never received confirmation from the VA that they had gotten that. I was running into roadblocks with the VA and so I had to hire legal assistance to help me with the claims process."
Encalade said there's nothing more frustrating than talking to a computer, especially when dealing with the VA.
"They want a real person. I want a real person," Encalade said.
She said older veterans may not be computer savvy, and even when someone is, the process remains difficult.
"To file a claim, get some help. Have somebody, an advocate in your corner to help you with the claims process and understand what you're looking at."
Pitcovich said if she didn't have the support of her husband, she believes she could have ended up as another statistic.
"I would be homeless. And we wonder why we have such a homeless veteran population and the high suicide rate of 22 veterans per day."
The Veterans Affairs spokeswoman I spoke with told me they are aware of the inspector general report and they are working on the process to speed up claims.
The Jackson Office of the Veterans Administration told me the best information about enrolling for health benefits or other issues is to go to the website. (see links below)
Julia Encalade said there are very good and dedicated people working with the Veterans Administration who are trying to help veterans file their claims. She said the problem is trying to find those key people once you get past the phone and computer systems.
Encalade can be reached at (228) 435-8271.
Sunday on WLOX News at 10pm, you'll hear from veteran Phil King who has an emotional story of dealing with the VA. It's a story that almost ended in suicide.
Additional resources for veterans:
Mississippi Association of the County Veterans Service:
(228) 435-8271 (Biloxi)
(228) 865-4027 (Gulfport)