GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan veterans are having to wait less time than those in many others states to get the benefits they’re due, but some say the wait is still too long.
Michigan ranks in the Top 20 states that have the most veterans, but has historically been at the bottom in terms of benefits paid to those vets.
Things have improved. Veterans in Michigan are currently waiting a shorter time than the national average to hear back on a disability claim.
That’s an empty statistic for those who say they can’t make ends meet without federal veterans benefits.
One reason for the wait is a backlog of claims: There were almost 20,000 pending in 2011. That number dropped to 13,000 as of March.
“I love this country,” veteran Ross Starkweather said. “I went to serve and fought for this country. If I was asked to do it again, I would have to think twice.”
He joined the Air Force in 1969 and served in Vietnam.
“I was exposed to Agent Orange, there is no doubt about it,” he said.
That’s a chemical herbicide the U.S. sprayed in Vietnam. It has been known to cause illnesses in veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA covers illnesses that it can assume are related to exposure
“I’ve had five heart attacks. I’ve had a quadruple bypass surgery,” Starkweather said.
Heart problems are among the illnesses that have been associated with Agent Orange, but it’s not clear whether that’s what caused Starkweather’s problems.
He first filed a claim for disability benefits in 2011. The VA has turned him down twice, but he is still waiting for a final decision.
He said he sometimes feels like the feds are waiting for him to die.
“Because if I die, they don’t have to pay nothing,” Starkweather said.
Carrie Roy, the director of Kent County Department of Veterans Affairs, is handling Starkweather’s claim, fighting to get him benefits she says he deserves. But she doesn’t think the VA is stalling.
Roy says the VA denied Starkweather because he lacked medical records from his time in the Air Force.
“A lot of times evidence isn’t there, because we didn’t report the incident,” she said. “I think the problem is you can’t pin point one specific factor.”
She said the system has “improved immensely.”
Figures from the VA back that up. The VA says the average wait time for Michigan veterans now stands at eight months, which is below the national average. It’s also an improvement from two years ago, when Michigan vets waited 10 months for a decision on a claim.
A VA spokesperson told Target 8 the improvement is due to nationwide changes made in 2012, when the VA hired more people, implemented mandatory overtime and switched to paperless claims.
Still, eight months is a long time for someone like Starkweather, who said his bills are piling up and his cash reserve is dwindling.
Roy says the delay is a combination of backlog, an increase in vets coming home and human error.