A recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting is getting a lot of well deserved attention. The report reveals that the backlog of veterans waiting for the Department of Veteran Affairs to act on their claim for benefits will top one million by the end of this month.The average backlog of a response from the VA is 320 days – over 10 months, but can be over one year in large population centers – 642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles and 542 days in Chicago. That is a national disgrace. These courageous men and women raised their hands high when asked who will answer the call of duty, and they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and compassion. There are many reasons for the increasing backlog of processing claims for veteran benefits – the return of all combat troops from Iraq and draw down of forces in Afghanistan is a large reason. Another large reason is that Congress, the courts, and the executive branch continue to increase conditions that are covered by the VA. For example, in 2010 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki announced that three diseases — ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and b-cell leukemia — would be considered the result of Agent Orange exposure for veterans who served in Vietnam. More than 240,000 claims for those diseases have been filed since that announcement. Well, Vietnam vets more than deserve treatment and benefits for their exposure to Agent Orange. But if you’re going to expand VA coverage shouldn’t you plan for it? Well, they tried – the VA spent 4 years and $537 million on a new computer to streamline the claims process. It was less than a resounding success; 97% of veteran’s claims are still filed on paper, and that’s the single biggest reason that stands out for the backlog – they VA is literally being buried in a mountain of paperwork.
That’s the mountain of paperwork at the Winston-Salem NC VA office, the weight of all that paperwork compromised the structural integrity of the building – they were worried the floor would collapse. Filing a claim for veteran benefits can be complicated, and can require a lot of documentation. Department of Veterans Affairs employees are urged to be advocates for veterans. Yet those same workers are also required to be stewards of the taxpayer money, required to distinguish the truly needy from the less needy from the fraudulent. Is that traumatic brain injury from high school football or a roadside bomb in Iraq? Is that back injury a 10 percent disability or 30 percent? Is that post-traumatic stress disorder real? Medical questions without simple answers must be settled by overworked bureaucrats and doctors attempting to apply black-and-white rules to very gray ailments. Their decisions mean the difference between monthly checks of a few hundred dollars versus a few thousand. When veterans are not happy with the results, as is often the case, they can appeal, or reapply, submitting new documents and diagnoses to bolster their claims — and adding years to the process. But does documentation support a claim need to be submitted on piles of paper? Of course not, this is not rocket science. Here in Arizona we have an excellent AHCCCS medicaid system, and once covered you need to need to re-qualify every six months. You need to submit proof of income (or lack of), bank statements, proof of residency in Arizona, an accounting of your living expenses and proof of that. So, do you send them a 9×12 envelop 2″ thick with documents twice a year? No, you go to HealthEarizona.org, fill out your application/re-qualification online and upload your documentation which is attached to you application, so when the state employee reviews your application/re-qualification they have everything they need right there to make a decision in minutes.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sinseki says they have “a fix”. That fix is the department’s “transformation plan,” which calls for a new training regimen that Mr. Shinseki says will improve speed and accuracy in processing claims; creation of special teams to handle complex claims; and new digital technology that will replace the current paper-choked system. When all those pieces are in place by 2015, Mr. Shinseki says that every claim will be processed in fewer than 125 days, with almost no errors — a pledge that veterans’ advocates view skeptically. I’m skeptical as well, and even if “the fix” is successful. I think 4 months is still too long. Because this backlog has a very tragic human toll.
All gave some, and some gave all
The Center for Investigative Reporting report details the story of Lincoln Capstick, an unemployed Iraq War veteran in Indiana, where the average wait for new claims is well over one year – 612 days. Capstick said his electricity was cut off three times while he waited for the VA to grant a disability claim for traumatic brain injury, headaches and a variety of leg and knee injuries sustained when a military contractor’s SUV ran him over in the desert near the Iraq-Kuwait border. Capstick said there were periods where he thought of killing himself because he felt so hopeless. According to the VA, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
A group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans met with senior White House officials yesterday to express the urgent need for the Obama Administration to fix the current backlog in Veterans Affairs disability benefits claims. Members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) presented a petition to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, calling for President Obama to “keep the promise we made to the millions of veterans who have served and sacrificed to defend our nation” by ending the benefit backlog. Over 36,000 American citizens have signed that petition, including 23 members of Congress, including Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and the Republican Chairman of the House Veteran Affairs Committee and the ranking Democrat member of the house committee. But NOT a single Congressman or Senator from Arizona. I urge every single member of Congress from Arizona to sign this petition and support the IAVA’s call for action. But I especially urge our two Congressmen from southern Arizona to do so, Congressmen Ron Barber and Raul Grijalva.