It’s a real downer to spend your Fourth of July contemplating the number of recent veterans who are homeless, without a job, suffering from lingering chronic illnesses, lost limbs or have committed suicide since returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while waiting for their VA benefit claims to be processed, but heck, it’s pretty important.
As more and more U.S. troops return home from war with severe and lingering health issues, the number of disability claims to the Veterans Administration has skyrocketed. Disability claims have jumped from 391,127 the week President Barack Obama took office to a high of 833,000 this month. In April, the Veterans Affairs Department launched an initiative to clear the backlog of claims that date back more than two years. They claim, as “investigative journalists” at The Daily Show have pointed out over the past several months, that the enemy is the paper records that have been used at the VA since before the First World War, and their goal is to put those records on a computer. They’re also apparently having trouble merging information on veterans in two different databases at the VA and the Defense Department.
The VA said in late June that 65,000 claims — or 97 percent of all claims that are more than two years old, have been processed since April. The VA plans to reduce the wait time to 125 days, or just over four months, by 2015, but the number of new claims keeps rising. And veterans who are in pain know that’s too damn long.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a non-profit devoted to helping soldiers, launched an interactive website, thewaitwecarry.org, last week, where veterans share their experience waiting for VA benefits. According to their data, veterans in New York who reported their claims to IAVA have waited an average of 537 days for their claims to be processed.
Sixty-nine percent of those New York veterans said they were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, 54 percent listed service-related mental health problems, 50 percent reported a bad back and 45 percent reported they had bad knees as a result of their service.
“Despite major investment from VA, the problem is growing – not getting better,” says the IAVA. “We’re coming to DC to meet with elected officials and call on President Obama to appoint a Presidential Commission to #EndTheVABacklog. They fought for us overseas – they shouldn’t have to fight for benefits at home.”
It’s not just the rank and file servicemen who are having trouble with their reintroduction to civilian life. Even the Navy Seal who shot Osama bin Laden hasn’t received his due, as chronicled in this excellent profile in the March edition of Esquire magazine.
Members of Congress have been working this spring to try to decrease the wait time for veterans in need of help. East End Congressman Tim Bishop says he’s among a group of representatives who believe more must be done.
Mr. Bishop agreed in a recent letter to veterans that the backlog is in large part due to the fact that the VA only recently began implementing a digital record system to replace a paper system dating back to the First World War.
He says he has two full-time veterans caseworkers in his Long Island office to help process claims. They can be reached at 631-289-6500.
Mr. Bishop announced last week he has joined forces with Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Colorado to introduce the “Helping Veterans Exposed to Toxic Chemicals Act” (H.R. 2510), which will establish three “centers of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions related to exposure to open burn pits and other exposures to toxic chemicals while deployed overseas,” which can lead to illnesses ranging from asthma to gastro-intestinal disorders to cancer. The bill would authorize an appropriation of $30 million per year from 2014 through 2019 to establish and operate the centers throughout the country.
The recognition of the dangers of our troops’ exposure to toxic chemicals is a sobering ironic twist in the annals of Veterans Administration history. In 2010, the VA expanded a list of illnesses believed to have been caused by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which led the agency to reexamine 260,000 previously denied claims, helping lead to the current backlog in an agency already taxed by the aftermath of the wars the nation has waged since Vietnam. Mr. Bishop says he plans to do what he can to help speed up the process in the future.
“These veterans did everything our nation asked of them, and it is unacceptable that they must wait in limbo due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and insufficient resources devoted to promptly processing service-related disabilities claims,” he said. “Ramping up funding is key, but it is not the only mission we must undertake. I am a cosponsor of a slate of legislative proposals in the House of Representatives that will tackle the backlog in a comprehensive manner, including: mandating the Department of Defense provide information to the VA in a more timely manner; establishing Claims Adjudication Centers of Excellence; educating veterans on strategies to expedite a decision on their claims, allowing VA to contract for medical disability examinations outside the agency; and requiring VA to improve its public reporting of the backlog. In addition, current policy is for VA to wait until all of the components of a veteran’s claim are adjudicated to start payment, leading to financial hardship for families already facing a difficult situation…. I also support legislation that would mandate payment for individual components of the claim as they are approved.”
“No veteran or their family should be forced to wait months, or even years, for a decision to be made on their disability claim,” he added.
But The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart may have a better idea than depending on Congress to clean up its databases. Mobilize an army of volunteers to fix the databases, as President Barack Obama did in not just one but two presidential campaigns, he said in a segment that aired in late May.
“Clearly the lesson appears to be if we could take the same urgency, enthusiasm and clarity of vision you need to get elected to government and apply those to governing, can we fix some problems? Yes we motherf*#$ing can,” he said.
But how does anyone get through the red tape of an entrenched bureaucracy? Any ideas? And why is it that only our comedians seem to be taking this seriously?