LOS ANGELES — Around the 3rd of every month, Walter Lachman receives a check in the mail from the German government. The money means both survival and justice for the 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, who was sent to a concentration camp at age 14.
In August, though, the reparations check didn't arrive on the 3rd. Or the 4th. Or the 5th. Either Lachman or his caregiver checked the mailbox at his Laguna Niguel home every day. It's an arduous trip for a self-described "old guy" who uses a walker to get around and switches to a wheelchair for longer distances.
"I said, 'Maybe it'll come tomorrow'," Lachman said. "And it didn't come tomorrow. ... I need the money. I have no other income except for Social Security. I depend on that money I get from Germany."
It finally arrived, eight days late, making Lachman one of tens of thousands of people whose lives have been affected by the ongoing chaos in the U.S. Postal Service. Sure, there are concerns that the weakened agency won't be able to handle millions of mail-in ballots, which could wreak havoc on the general election. President Donald Trump is already raising the alarm as a means of halting widespread voting by mail.
But the election isn't until November. And there's more than enough real-time postal pain to go around, since Postmaster General Louis DeJoy began instituting cost-cutting measures in July. DeJoy has since put the brakes on any new cuts — including slashing overtime, ripping out mail-sorting machines, getting rid of blue mailboxes that grace so many street corners. The damage, however, has already been done.
Critical prescriptions are being delayed, placing many Americans' health in jeopardy. New credit cards, rent checks, stimulus payments from the Internal Revenue Service — all have been stalled. Small-business owners who sell goods through Etsy and EBay are being hammered with customer complaints because packages do not arrive when promised.
Elected officials have been inundated with concerns from constituents. Democratic Rep. Judy Chu has received nearly 300 individual complaints and nearly 5,000 letters that were part of an organized campaign.
"This is a matter of life and death," she said.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez, also a Democrat, said he's received 109 individual complaints about the USPS since July.
Nearly 350 readers responded to a Los Angeles Times request for information about their experiences with the Postal Service; of those, 87% said they'd noticed a slowdown in mail delivery in recent weeks, and 13% said they'd seen mailboxes removed or disabled during the same period.
Christine Kneeland is among those who reached out to The Times. The 73-year-old lives outside of tiny Sutter Creek in Northern California. She's been paying on a life insurance policy faithfully for the last 30 years or so. But in July, her insurance agent called her with bad news.
The $100,000 policy had been canceled because she hadn't paid her May and June premiums — which had been sent to her via the Postal Service.
Kneeland spent seven weeks — a time of extreme anxiety, she said — to get the problem resolved. Then, in August, after driving a little over a mile to her mailbox, she found two premium notices inside. One was dated May 16, the other June 16.
"And here I am getting them in August," she said. "I was so angry."
She photographed the envelopes and sent the images to her agent. When she contacted the small post office in Sutter Creek, she said, she was told that hers was far from the only problem and that some people had waited 40 days for packages.
"It's very, very annoying to have your life insurance canceled during a pandemic," Kneeland said. "It's $100,000, which I'm sure my husband would want if I were to die during the pandemic. Of all times to have something like this happen! It was just absolutely frightening."
A Los Angeles County woman mailed a rent check to her landlord on June 28. She'd sent it a couple of days early because she thought he would be worried about getting it on time. He lives about 60 miles away.
But on July 8, she realized that the check hadn't cleared. So she reached out to her landlord. He said he had yet to receive it. When it finally arrived, it was postmarked July 11, nearly two weeks after she had mailed it.
"Because of the slowdown, it caused weird things with him," said the woman, who requested anonymity because she does not want to jeopardize her job. "He thought I was lying to him, that I hadn't sent him the check."
Among the most concerning results of the Postal Service disarray is the slowdown in the delivery of prescription drugs. An Axios-Ipsos poll released on Aug. 18 reported that nearly one in five Americans had received medication through the mail in the previous week and "one in four of these (5% of all Americans) experienced a delay or non-delivery."
The Department of Veterans Affairs' mail-order pharmacy alone "processed 119.7 million outpatient prescriptions in fiscal year 2016," the most recent figures on the agency's website. That accounts for 470,000 prescriptions filled each day. An estimated 80% of the outpatient prescriptions filled by the VA are provided via mail order.
Gomez, the Los Angeles congressman, said he takes prescription blood pressure medication.
"I've been getting it through the mail. I have just a few pills left," he said in an interview. "So I went to the pharmacy instead. I couldn't afford it not getting to me on time. I was just worried. I didn't take the chance. ... People rely on the mail to be consistent. It's a mess."
Richard Littlestone is one of many veterans affected by the slowdown in mail delivery. He is 96. He graduated from West Point and served in the Army for 32 years, through three wars. After leaving the military in 1975, he went on to UCLA, where he received his second master's degree and eventually retired as associate director of the computers and information systems program in the Graduate School of Management.
These days, he receives all of his medications through the mail from the VA; each package comes with a tracking number. He's had a heart attack and a heart valve replacement and a couple of stents implanted. He has difficulty walking "just even around the house. I can't walk outside anymore," he said.
All of which makes consistent mail service imperative.
Among the Pacific Palisades resident's medications is a nasal spray that helps him breathe, one he describes as "very important." In early August, he ran out.
Littlestone received it 10 days after it was mailed and eight days after the U.S. Postal Service acknowledged receiving it. It arrived at the Pacific Palisades post office on Aug. 3 but wasn't delivered until Aug. 10.
"They held it up for over a week," Littlestone said. "Had it been something that really was vital to me it could have resulted in death. Which I wouldn't be surprised has happened to some other veterans."
Tyler Bee's prescriptions disappeared somewhere in the postal system for 39 days.
The 44-year-old is a massage therapist and aesthetician, although he's given barely a facial or a massage since the pandemic struck. He lives in Hollywood. The Walk of Fame runs down the sidewalk in front of his apartment building. The crowds below help him feel less alone during these difficult days of isolation.
And he has been HIV-positive since 2008. On July 12, the Kaiser pharmacy in Livermore shipped him a 90-day supply of his medications: Triumeq for HIV and an antidepressant called Trazodone. They did not arrive.
On Aug. 1, he filed a claim with the Postal Service. Then he called. The postal worker on the phone "was phenomenal," he said. She told him the package was stuck somewhere outside of Oakland. Still the medications did not arrive. He called Kaiser, which reauthorized his prescription; that process took several days.
Bee emailed Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who told Bee's story at an Aug. 18 news conference. Bee paid close attention to the Senate and House hearings, during which members of Congress grilled DeJoy on his agency's failings.
The missing meds finally arrived Aug. 20. On the plus side, Bee keeps a backup stash. On the minus side, he used it all up. When he got down to his last four pills, he said, he started skipping a day between doses. In all, he missed several days of medication.
"I've always had an emergency supply in case there was the end of the world, the apocalypse, some evil force in the world destroying our mail system," Bee said. "I never thought it would be our own government."
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