Scandalous VA backlog merits urgent action and accountability
There’s no shortage of money and manpower to fulfill the country’s moral obligation to care for its injured military veterans. So why are hundreds of thousands of veterans forced to wait a year or more to have their disability claims processed by the Department of Veterans Affairs? The answer can be found in an abject failure of leadership. Although the backlog has been building for years, it wasn’t until recent press reports documented the disgraceful claims backlog that the White House and the VA displayed the appropriate sense of urgency.The Baltimore Sun reported in January that more than 900,000 veterans across the country were forced to wait an average of nine months for the VA to determine their eligibility for disability benefits. As of this month, 250,000 claims have been pending for a year or more. Closer to home, Tribune reporter Howard Altman reported last week that 50,000 claims were pending at the end of 2012 at the St. Petersburg Veterans Affairs office, half of them older than seven months. As many as 7,500 local veterans have been waiting more than a year. It’s unacceptable to think veterans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan returned home to find another battlefront awaiting them at the local VA office. In some cases, injured veterans and their families face financial hardships while stuck in this bureaucratic limbo. Granted, there has been a flood of claims. According to the Baltimore Sun: Nearly 50 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking compensation, a historically high percentage for wartime service; the new veterans claim an average range of eight to 10 disabilities, such as hearing loss and post traumatic stress disorder, more than twice the number from Vietnam-era claims; and the VA expanded access to benefits for medical conditions related to Agent Orange, Gulf War illness and combat stress disorders. The Agent Orange decision alone added 260,000 cases to the system. But those reasons are no excuse for the staggering backlog, which is defined as cases pending at least 125 days. While the country struggled through a recession, the VA grew to historic funding and staffing levels. In the four years President Obama has been in office, VA funding has increased 42 percent. At the same time, the backlog grew from 391,000 cases to the 900,000 reported in January. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican from Palm Harbor who serves on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, thinks there is a culture of complacency contributing to the backlog. His office reports that the average VA field worker processed 135 claims a year in 1997. In 2012, the average was 73 cases a year. Layered onto that is an outdated system for processing the claims. Despite spending $1 billion on the effort, the VA and the Department of Defense have failed to create a centralized computer system for moving records between the two agencies. In other words, the two departments are unable to share health information about veterans in an efficient way, adding to the delays. In his April 21 article, Altman reported that the VA’s Inspector General’s Office reviewed a management system introduced to improve productivity and found the system, “has made the claims process more difficult, rather than improving efficiency as intended.” The VA has spent $500 million on the system. Altman also reported that thousands of claims in St. Petersburg were delayed because the office was waiting on mail sent to a subcontractor — an excuse more suited for 1913 than 2013. The White House and the VA have unveiled plans to attack the backlog. Predictably, the White House wants to increase the funding for processing veterans benefits, by 13.6 percent. Forgive us for being skeptical of that solution. For its part, the VA promises to process the 250,000 claims that are a year or older within the next six months. It plans to issue provisional rulings that will give veterans with enough paperwork on hand a chance to begin receiving their benefits immediately. Why wasn’t that done years ago? It is beyond comprehension that a solution for digitalizing records and unclogging backlogged claims has eluded the VA. Clearly, it has not been for a lack of funding. The VA’s budget has grown from $98 billion in 2009 to $140 billion this year, among the largest of any government agency. That leaves leadership to shoulder the blame. Eric Shinseki, the VA’s secretary since 2009, says the backlog can be eliminated by 2015. The nation will be watching.