Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., recently spent five days dealing with the Veterans Affairs Department trying to get a simple problem fixed. She is seen above in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., knows firsthand the frustration many veterans face in dealing with the Veterans Affairs Department following her own five-day ordeal trying to get a simple problem fixed.
The disabled Iraq veteran endured busy signals, dropped calls and VA representatives who didn't have the power to correct a mistake that led to her monthly disability compensation payment being rerouted to someone else's bank account.
"I experienced what many veterans have experienced," Duckworth said in an interview. "If this was my only income and I missed my mortgage payment, this would really hurt."
She vowed to try to help fix the system, although her efforts may not come from a position on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee after she is sworn into office in January to begin a two-year freshman term in the House of Representatives.
Although she plans to work on veterans' issues, Duckworth said the veterans' committee, which deals with VA programs, is not her first choice; she's looking for an appointment to a committee dealing with transportation and infrastructure issues that she believes are important to her Illinois constituents.
Duckworth, who served in VA for two years as assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, said she could have called someone high up at VA to help when she discovered her December disability check had gone missing, but she decided to use the same path as other veterans to get a feel for what they face.
It wasn't the first time she has had benefits issues. While at VA, Duckworth applied for the Post-9/11 GI Bill using the same system as other veterans — and found that the painless, 30-minute process promised by VA officials required "three attempts and two hours" to complete.
Ironically, her status as an elected official, former VA executive and one of the most well-known Iraq veterans might have been part of the reason it took so long for her latest problem to be resolved, she said.
At least twice, VA representatives she reached by phone told her that neither they nor their immediate supervisors were able to fix her issue because her files had been flagged with a code for special treatment.
Some things worked well, however. She said the E-Benefits system that allows veterans to log into VA's website to view their accounts helped her quickly figure out that she had not received her payment because it was sent to the wrong account.
Scheduling a callback from VA when the benefits hotline is busy also proved helpful, Duckworth said. She used that option twice, and both times received a callback within the 15-minute window on the following day that she had scheduled.
But there were also plenty of frustrations, Duckworth said. The benefits hotline was busy during normal working hours, with a message telling callers to try again at night.
She said she was not allowed to stay on hold for the next available representative, a choice many veterans would prefer. If you didn't schedule a callback for the following day, your call was simply disconnected, she said, using an unprintable word to describe how she felt about being cut off.
When she received a callback, the VA representative was unaware of any previous calls on the same issue, so Duckworth had to start from scratch each time she reached someone. And when the automated callback was disconnected — that time, she admits it was likely her fault — she had "no way to get through to them again" because she didn't have the representative's direct number, and the representative never tried to call her.
She also was put on hold once for 57 minutes. The person who ultimately answered her call was unaware she had been placed on hold and had no idea about the status of her payment.
"It really was frustrating," Duckworth said. "I learned a lot about what veterans face."