CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Some North Carolina veterans are waiting months and even years for the government to pay for medical care for injuries they suffered during their service.
Numbers from the past week show more than 47,000 veteran claims in our region are waiting to be processed. More than 30,000 have been waiting longer than the VA goal of 125 days.
Former sailor Linda Goodliffe has been on dry land for 20 years, but she said she still feels pain from injuries that started in dive school -- injuries she said she felt pressured to push aside.
“Running on a sprained ankle 5-10 miles a day -- my injuries compounded from my right ankle to my left knee to my right hip. That's what I was calling it at the time but it turns out it was a hernia,” Goodliffe said.
Goodliffe showed Eyewitness News stacks of paperwork documenting her medical problems.
“I've had seven surgeries since I got out of the Navy. The VA has not paid for or done any of them and they're all a result of my service,” she said.
She's one of thousands waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process disability claims.
“This current claim is about four years old,” Goodliffe said.
Claims from our area are sent to an office in Winston-Salem.
An August inspector general report revealed alarming issues there. Photos show veterans' files stacked on top of cabinets and in boxes on the floor.
The report said this puts veterans' cases at risk of being lost or misfiled.
The VA regional office is in Winston-Salem, inside a federal building. Eyewitness News asked officials for an interview and a tour to show us how they fixed those problems pinpointed in the OIG report. After more than a month of emails saying they would work with Eyewitness News, they denied the request and wouldn't let us inside.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs and is closely following the nationwide backlog.
With U.S. troops expected home from Afghanistan by 2014, he predicts delays will grow.
“It will worsen even if we don't get more troops back. Every time we add additional employees at their request that they don't have enough, the productivity per worker goes down, not up,” Burr said.
Despite more staff, Burr's office said the average wait for a VA claim appeal jumped from 645 days in 2008 to 747 days this year.
He wants workers to handle more claims.
“The only thing I've gotten is that technology will solve a lot of this issue,” Burr said. “What technology will do is create a new black hole for claims to go in and possibly never be seen again. That's not an answer for me.”
The president signed legislation Burr helped introduce this summer that allows the VA to communicate electronically with veterans and requires the agency notify vets of the specific evidence they need to present and help veterans gather it.
Goodliffe said she won't give up her fight for benefits.
“We were promised help,” she said. “When we signed and agreed to be property of the United States government, we were promised. They said, ‘We will take care of you,’ and they lie.”
The new rules for VA claims will take effect in February.
Burr also introduced a bill that would require judges in veterans' claim appeals to live within 50 miles of Washington, D.C., to speed up those cases. The Senate has not voted yet on that.