After seven months of delay, the Department of Veterans Affairs finally approved World War II veteran James Alderson's pension benefits last week.
That was too late for Alderson, whose life's work was the farm supply store he founded near Chico after returning home from the Battle of the Bulge. The 89-year-old veteran had died three months earlier in a Yuba City nursing home.
"My father was a very proud person," said Alderson's son, Kale. "Whenever I saw him, he would ask if I'd heard from the VA and whether his money would hold up. It really took a toll on him."
The VA's inability to pay benefits to veterans before they die is increasingly common, according to data obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The data reveal that tens of thousands of veterans are being approved for disability benefits and pensions only after it is too late for the money to help them.
In the fiscal year that ended in September, the agency paid $437 million in retroactive benefits to the survivors of almost 19,500 veterans who died waiting. The figures represent a dramatic increase from three years earlier, when the widows, parents and children of fewer than 6,400 veterans were paid $7.9 million on claims filed before their loved one's death.
The ranks of survivors waiting for these benefits also have surged, from fewer than 3,000 in December 2009 to almost 13,000 this month.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the data confirmed the worst fears of many veterans and members of Congress.
"The common refrain we hear from many veterans is, 'Delay, deny, wait till I die,' " said Miller, who called the burgeoning backlog of benefits claims a "national embarrassment."
Long waits in cities
Nationwide, 900,000 veterans and their families have been waiting about nine months for a decision, with veterans in California facing even longer waits. As of October, the most recent month for which numbers are available, the average wait for a veteran was almost 11 months in San Diego, 17 months in Oakland and a year and a half in Los Angeles.
But in a conference call with the Center for Investigative Reporting, VA officials said that although the long delays generally were unacceptable, the growth in posthumous payments was not disturbing.
"It's a good thing that the VA pays benefits to honor the service of veterans and the sacrifices of their family members despite the fact that a veteran has unfortunately died," said Dave McLenachen, director of the agency's pension and fiduciary service.
Some advocates for veterans say the number of survivors being approved for retroactive payments represents a fraction of the veterans who die waiting. Many grieving families, they say, don't file paperwork with the agency to keep a claim from expiring.
"You're just so exhausted and drained with the grief of losing a loved one that sometimes it's hard just to wake up in the morning, let alone navigate a complicated bureaucracy," said Bonnie Carroll, founder of the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors in Washington, D.C.
In November, more than a year after Vietnam veteran John Conrad died of leukemia, the VA sent his widow a letter acknowledging his cancer was caused by exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
The decision marked a reversal for the agency, which had denied Conrad's claim for disability benefits for three years while the former Army specialist was still alive. The denials had come despite supporting medical opinions from a series of doctors, including the VA's own oncologist.
"We went through our savings and our retirement money. And then, after he died, they said they made a mistake and sent a check for $79,000," his widow, Linda Conrad, said in an interview at her home outside Phoenix.