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For nearly a year, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Aaron Glantz has been digging into the Department of Veterans Affairs’ daunting backlog of benefits claims, shining a spotlight on the long wait times – more than a year in many cases – that veterans often face after returning home from battle.­­­

But he hasn’t been alone. Journalists around the country have used our data and reporting as the basis for their own work, offering unique narratives on the backlog’s impact nationwide. And the potential for collaboration keep growing.

Powered by our regularly updated interactive map that displays how long veterans are waiting on average for disability claims at each of the 58 regional VA offices, we’ve engaged an array of media partners, including the Public Insight Network and the Investigative News Network, to combine the data we’ve organized with local voices in ways that demonstrate how the delays have affected veterans in their area. For a full how-to on localizing the disability claims story, see this great reporting recipe from PIN’s Jeff Severns Guntzel.

Our latest VA exposé offers even more localization opportunities: Through internal documents obtained from the VA, Glantz reveals how the agency has failed to provide key information to Congress and the public on the scale of the crisis veterans encounter when they try to obtain service-related benefits. Several points in the story are backed by data for each of the VA’s regional offices, most of which we have made available through documents posted online (outlined below). Local data that we have to offer around the new story includes:

  • The average length of time that newly returning veterans are waiting for a response to their benefits. As Glantz points out, veterans filing their first claim, including those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, wait nearly two months longer than the average, between 316 and 327 days. Returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in America’s major population centers wait up to twice as long – 642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles and 542 days in Chicago. This document shows the number of days it takes the VA to process a fresh disability claim, by city.
  • The number of digitized claims at each VA office. Despite a four-year, $537 million computerization effort, 97 percent of all veterans’ claims remain on paper. While some offices are faring better with the agency’s new digitization efforts, overall adoption has a long way to go. If you’d like to know if your regional VA office has implemented the computer system and how many, if any, claims have been digitized, we can provide that data.
  • The number of staff members at each VA office. The agency’s public pronouncements about hiring 3,300 additional claim processors to cope with the influx of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were misleading. Instead, because of turnover and the loss of more than 2,000 workers who were temporarily paid through stimulus funds, staffing at the VA’s 58 regional offices actually has increased by fewer than 300 people since September 2010. At a majority of the regional offices – including those in New York; Chicago; Los Angeles; Waco, Texas; and Oakland, Calif. – the VA now employs fewer people than it did two years ago. Staffing levels at each regional VA office in December 2012 can be found here. For comparison, the staffing levels at each office in September 2010 can be found here.

Of course, this data also can be paired with our interactive map, which updates each week with new data from the VA, to help provide context for your stories. We also have a growing network of veterans who have shared their experiences with us through emails, phone calls and the Public Insight Network, who might be able to offer insight for your reporting. We’re in the process of working out an easy way to connect veteran sources with other journalists, but if you need help finding a local veteran, get in touch and we’ll see if we can help.

If you have questions or need more info on any of the data above, or would like to embed our interactive map on your website, send me an email: cgoins@cironline.org. We look forward to working with you!”

Cole Goins is the director of community engagement for Reveal, where he cultivates partnerships that blend in-depth journalism and creative public engagement. He has built and supported distribution networks, spearheaded arts-based initiatives such as the Off/Page Project, led social media and audience strategy, and facilitated statewide media collaborations. He was a senior fellow in the 2015 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowships, mentoring five journalists on approaches to community engagement. Previously, Goins was the engagement editor at the Center for Public Integrity, where he led audience development initiatives and multimedia features for award-winning investigative projects. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he worked as music director for WXYC, the student-run radio station. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.