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VA improving benefits system just as veterans flood Los Angeles

Veterans have been waiting months and months for their disability claims to kick in. That's changing, officials say.
Veterans have been waiting months and months for their disability claims to kick in. That's changing, officials say.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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 The Department of Veterans Affairs has made major headway getting benefits to former service members quickly, officials say. The news comes a time California is expecting an influx of thousands of new veterans. 

In L.A., the average wait time for disability claims has dropped from 14 months to three months since 2013.

"It's definitely getting better," said Garry Augustine, of Disabled American Veterans, a group that helps veterans apply for benefits. 

The backlog of disability claims provoked a major scandal for the Veterans Administration in 2012. Jon Stewart mocked the department on The Daily Show for what he called Operation Enduring Wait

Augustine said the "the backlog of claims over 125 days was over 600,000 cases" back then. This week, the V.A. announced that number was down to about 95,000.

That’s good news for California, as local V.A. officials are seeing a massive influx of new veterans seeking benefits.

Robert McKenrick, regional director of the Veterans Benefits Office, said more veterans are moving to California to take advantage of the public university system. 

In 2012, they received over 11,000 new claims. And this year, they're on-track to hit 29,000. Benefits paid through L.A.'s office have more than doubled in recent years to $2 billion annually. 

McKenrick and Augustine both credited the V.A.'s switch from a paper to digital claims system with clearing up the backlog. 

By getting rid of hard-copy claims, the VA found it dramatically cut down time it took to adjudicate each file. And it allows the busiest claims offices to quickly share the load with V.A. administrators in other cities when needed. It also makes it far less likely that documents will get lost along the way.

In L.A., for instance, the V.A. Inspector General found that some veterans’ disability claim paperwork had ended up in shred bins.

McKenrick told KPCC the documents were removed before being shredded.