MANATEE -- The St. Petersburg VA Regional Office has the distinction of having the second-largest backlog of veteran disability claims to process in the United States.
A McClatchy analysis shows that there were 46,929 claims pending in the St. Petersburg VA Region as of Nov. 24, second only to the Waco, Texas, region with 48,163.
The processing time at St. Petersburg is also slightly higher than the national average -- 271 days, compared with 262 days nationally.
One contributing factor is the fact that Florida is home to the nation's second-largest veterans population and the St. Petersburg office serves the entire state of Florida, including Bradenton and Sarasota.
Add to that a fresh influx of wounded warriors from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a recognition that exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War is killing veterans years later and the VA has a flood of fresh claims.
Lee Kichen, a retired Army lieutenant colonel living in Manatee County, said the VA could improve its response to the backlog by changing from a paper-based application system to an electronic system.
Kichen recently retired as state service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the Veterans Affairs Regional Office in St. Petersburg, and he also served as the VFW's state legislative chairman. So he had a front-row seat on VA challenges.
"It's just overwhelming the number of people getting into the system now," says Stephen F. Schlueter, a Vietnam veteran who helped start the Braden River VFW Post.
In the past, the VA used a more restrictive window for paying disability to veterans, often requiring a direct link with combat.
But when medical studies show clear evidence of a higher incidence of disease among Vietnam vets than in the general population, it has been allowing more disability claims.
Among the diseases Vietnam vets can claim a disability are Parkinson's, B-cell leukemia, and ischemic heart disease, Kichen said.
The newer vets, those from the Iraq and Afghan wars, are coming home with traumatic brain injuries, loss of limbs, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and more.
Florida tends to be a magnet for retiring vets, with its mild winters and veteran-friendly local laws.
"Those numbers really represent a nationwide problem," Kichen said.
The Herald was unable to get comment Thursday from the St. Petersburg VA Region.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1.