SOURCE: USA TODAY (Editorial Board), Aug. 22, 2013
VA backlog fails ailing veterans: Our view
Those filing new disability claims could wait a year or more.
Since 2001, the government has trained, equipped and deployed more than 2.5 million men and women to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those who came home with brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder or other serious afflictions have too often found that the military's efficiency ended abruptly when they filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans filing a new disability claim can wait a year or more to get an answer from the VA, potentially costing them thousands of dollars a month in disability payments, even as they get VA medical treatment.
The backlog of claims more than four months old stands at almost a half-million. The delays used to be even worse: Under relentless pressure from Congress, veterans groups and the news media, the VA finally started shrinking the claims backlog this year. But the lethargic department doesn't plan to clear it completely for at least two more years, and veterans will still have to wait up to four months for an answer on their claims. That's a pitiful, unambitious goal, and there's deep concern that the VA can't even meet it.
Things got this bad because no one at the VA apparently had the wit to look at the numbers and plan for the enormous wave of veterans that would be coming their way. The problem is bipartisan. It began to get serious on President George W. Bush's watch and got worse under President Obama. Most of the causes are obvious: Huge numbers of vets filing claims, an antiquated system that keeps most records on paper despite a long-promised effort to digitize them, and a maddening disconnect between the VA and the Pentagon over getting veterans' medical records.
Efforts to fix the problem haven't always fared well. In 1997, an average VA employee processed 135 claims a year, according to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, but as of 2012 that had dropped to some 73 per year — even as the VA has hired thousands of new employees to handle the load.
The VA often explains the delays by noting that veterans' claims have become far more complicated, but the department has been making that same argument since at least 1994, when it told Congress the time to resolve claims had risen because of their "increasing complexity."
The department has done some things right. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki deserves great credit for initiatives such as making Vietnam War veterans eligible for benefits for medical problems stemming from Agent Orange and other causes. That made the backlog worse, but it was the correct thing to do.
And the department has worked hard lately to get the backlog under control, including requiring processors to work 20 hours of overtime a month. But the overtime ends on Sept. 30, which is one reason critics in Congress and veterans groups doubt the department will meet the goal of clearing the backlog by the end of 2015.
The debate over the problem too often seems sterile. Behind the numbers are men and women with real problems, many of them severe, whose best hope is help from the government that sent them to war.
USA TODAY reporter Gregg Zoroya put a face on the statistics recently by focusing on Mickey D'heron, a New Jersey firefighter and Army Reserve vet who served in 2008 and 2009 in Iraq, resulting in PTSD that cost him his job and almost cost him his family while the VA kept him waiting.
Stories like that should light a fire under the VA. Continuing to make ailing vets wait is a national disgrace.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature