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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs denied Navy veteran Hosea Roundtree’s disability benefits claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, saying it could find no evidence that he was in combat. When a VA claims processor tried to intervene, she says she was forced out. Veterans’ advocates say Roundtree’s case illustrates the VA’s priorities: productivity over accuracy.
Hosea Roundtree: I knew it. I knew it. I knew I should have been awarded that claim. I knew I should have gotten that claim approved. I knew it.
Reporter Aaron Glantz: In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied Hosea Roundtree’s disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Roundtree: What do you got to do? Go get shot before you get PTSD? There’s more than one way of getting wounded. I was mentally wounded. I was mentally wounded.
Reporter: The VA didn’t deny Roundtree had PTSD. But the agency said it couldn’t find any evidence he was in combat.
Jamie Fox: I just did a quick Google search on military history sites, and I was able to verify that his ship that he was on was actually in combat.
Reporter: Jamie Fox was a claims processor at the VA’s Oakland office. She discovered Roundtree was on a Navy destroyer in 1983 that engaged in battle off the coast of Beirut.
Fox: I brought it to the attention of the supervisor because I was new.
Reporter: Fox never saw Roundtree’s file again. Five months later, she was forced out.
Fox: It was devastating. I was in shock. I was confused.
Reporter: Fox filed a wrongful termination suit against the VA. The agency declined several requests to discuss her case. But in Fox’s termination letter, the VA said she failed to follow instructions by not sending Roundtree a letter denying his claim. And in a deposition, the former director of the VA’S Oakland office, Lynn Flint, said it didn’t matter if the agency’s decision in Roundtree’s case was “right or wrong.”
Gordon Erspamer: They’re not interested in quality. They are interested in production and getting the decisions done, regardless of whether they are right or wrong.
Reporter: Attorney Gordon Erspamer has successfully sued the VA on behalf of veterans. He doesn’t represent Roundtree or Fox, but he’s not surprised by what happened to them.
Erspamer: The system is simply broke, and we can do a lot better for our veterans.
Reporter: The VA says its error rate on disability claims is 14 percent.
This year, the VA’s inspector general published reports on how the agency handled more than 1,300 high-profile claims, including those for traumatic brain injury.The inspector general found inaccuracies in 515 claims – an error rate of 38 percent, according to a Center for Investigative Reporting analysis.
In a statement, the VA says those findings “do not present a true picture of the overall quality of the work.”
Reporter: Erspamer says errors are often the result of a well-known practice at the VA.
Erspamer: There’s a practice called topsheeting, a very famous term at the VA. And that is basically you take a look at the file, you look at the top pages of the file and you write a decision.
Reporter: The VA says it is “retooling procedures and deploying paperless data systems” to limit mistakes. The VA promises to reduce its error rate to 2 percent by 2015.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier: I want to see dramatic changes taking place now.
Reporter: Congresswoman Jackie Speier says errors are contributing to the VA’s huge backlog of disability claims.
Speier: There is no benefit in pushing a determination out that is wrong because, in the end, it will be appealed, and it, it's going to make the record look even worse.
Reporter: Appeals represent 31 percent of the agency’s 819,000 pending disability claims. By the time Hosea Roundtree filed his first claim, he had spent 17 years in the Navy. And more than a decade on the streets, addicted to drugs.
Roundtree: I lost it. I had a major breakdown. I’m being honest with you. I had a major breakdown.
Reporter: The same day he received his denial letter, Roundtree got a job offer from the VA’s health care division. He now works as a cook at the agency’s medical center in Sacramento. Jamie Fox now works for the same division of the VA that hired Roundtree, assisting veterans at a clinic in Santa Rosa. Her lawsuit is still pending. This spring she found Roundtree on Facebook.
Fox: I was so nervous calling. I didn’t know how he was going to respond.
Reporter: She heard what happened to his claim. And he heard what happened to her job.
Roundtree: I felt her pain. I felt her anger. I felt everything about her, because she and I connected.
Reporter: A few weeks later, they met. And Fox persuaded him to file a new disability claim.
Roundtree: It’s not just for me. It’s for me and every other vet that’s out there that’s suffering. It’s for every other vet that’s coming home so that they can see a difference. I want these vets coming back from overseas to get fair, better treatment.
Reporter: Aaron Glantz
Videographer: Adithya Sambamurthy
Edited by: Adithya Sambamurthy and Sharon Pieczenik
Senior digital editor and graphics: David Ritsher
Senior producer: Stephen Talbot
Executive producer for CIR: Sharon Tiller
Partner organizations: KXTV, KGO, KABC and KGTV