Act on VA disability backlog

May 4, 2013 

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have come back from the deserts only to become lost in a bureaucratic jungle.

Seeking help for wounds of the body and mind, those who served in the nation’s two long wars are enduring unconscionably long waits for action on their disability claims.

Congress boosted the Department of Veterans Affairs budget 40 percent to deal with returning veterans, but the agency has been overwhelmed nonetheless. The result is a bitter epilogue to war in which those who served are not being served. More than half a million veterans are stuck in the VA’s disability claims backlog and have been waiting months for help.

Veterans groups and members of Congress have pushed President Obama to speed the process and promises of action have come.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has announced a goal of processing all claims within 125 days by 2015. Meanwhile, veterans who have been waiting the longest will be provisionally approved so assistance might start quickly. But those promises come after a fundamental promise hasn’t been met, the promise to stand by those who stood up for their country.

Sixty seven U.S. senators, including North Carolina’s Kay Hagan sent a letter to the president in April saying that the average wait for first-time disability claims is now over 300 days, but some veterans “continue to wait 800 days, 900 days and even more than 1,000 days for a disability claims decision from the VA.”

In a separate letter to Shinseki in March, Hagan asked for direct action on the situation at the Veterans Benefits Administration claims office in Winston-Salem. She said that more than 7,000 veterans have been waiting at least a year and that more than 700 have waited more than two years.

“The men and women who sacrificed for our country deserve better than this,” Hagan said in a statement, “and I am committed to reducing the VA claims backlog effectively and efficiently by whatever means necessary.”

While the backlog is largely due to new veterans, it also reflects the VA’s decision to expand disability coverage for soldiers exposed to Agent Orange and Gulf War veterans who suffered adverse reactions to chemicals.

But part of the problem is also a chronic obtuseness at the VA. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that despite the slow pace of action on disability claims, the VA paid top executives who oversee the process – exempting political appointees – $2.8 million in bonuses in fiscal year 2011. The VA said last week that further bonuses will be withheld.

For Eugene Pitts of Charlotte, an Army veteran who served in the Fort Bragg-based 82 Airborne Division, the delays are not a surprise. He has dealt with the VA since he left the military after serving from 1976 to 1987. Pitts, 55, has been treated for knee injuries caused by parachuting and other military training.

“It’s like a hurry up and wait scenario. I’ve been in it for 24 years and it’s been one battle after another,” he said.

The VA, he said, should do better by the latest generation of veterans. “One percent of this country is fighting all the wars, and that 1 percent is being treated badly,” he said. “They need to be treated with the respect they gave the country and the flag.”

Delivering that treatment will be a massive but essential task. A Harvard University report found that one out of every two veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan has applied for permanent disability benefits, a sharply higher percentage than in previous wars.

The increase reflects improved trauma care that saved more than 95 percent of the wounded and the effects of improvised bombs. There’s also a higher awareness of invisible wounds. One-third of the 1.5 million troops who have returned and been discharged have been diagnosed with mental health issues.

The reasons for and the extent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will long be disputed, but there is no disagreement about the debt owed to those who served. They fought for their nation and now their nation must fight for them with its first mission being freeing them from the VA’s red tape jungle.

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