The Department of Veterans Affairs: Broken promises?

We’re a nation at war. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at the news. And for many Americans, the plight of injured Veterans is simply an afterthought relegated to political campaigns. Unfortunately, the stark reality for many American Veterans can be quite bleak.

A hero’s return

Some sources claim 18 Veterans commit suicide a day. Nearly 30 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Despite a slight uptick in the economy, Veteran unemployment rates remain higher than the general population. These sobering statistics are compounded by the very organization that is supposed to help our returning soldiers. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been unable to handle the needs of our new generation of warriors — so much so, nearly 600,000 former service-members are currently awaiting their healthcare benefits to be approved by the VA.

When criticized by Veteran groups and members of Congress, VA officials point to the fact that the backlog of Veterans benefit claims has increased dramatically over the past three years. Although President Obama has attempted to speed the process, there’s been virtually no changes implemented within the system despite these pressures — primarily due to small, upper echelon of bureaucrats which run the Veterans Administration. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was called before a closed-door meeting of the House Appropriation Committee recently to explain his agency’s gross mishandling of disability claims. According to Shinseki:

“We are aggressively executing a plan that we have put together to fix this decades-old problem and eliminate the backlog, as we have indicated, in 2015.”

No time to spare

Shineski’s remarks beg the question: Why has it taken this long to institute a plan? Shinseki was appointed to President Obama’s cabinet in 2009, nearly eight years into the War on Terror, and during that time the VA continued to use an entirely different and much of the time incompatible record keeping system than does the military from whom they source their information. The VA has just begun to update its electronic medical software in order to unify military records, yet the Pentagon hasn’t decided whether to adopt the VA’s billion dollar software model meaning there’s still the potential for a serious lack of communication between the two interdependent agencies.

Beyond this, the red tape associated with the VA ranges from the tragic to the comic. Quil Lawrence, National Public Radio’s Veterans Affairs correspondent, cited an example where a double-amputee was told his condition wasn’t “chronic.” Roughly 540,000 disability claims are over 125 days old (the VA’s official deadline for processing). And in some cities it can take over 600 days for a claim to simply cycle through the administrative process.

Solutions?

Apparently the VA has become aware of its aimless public image and in an attempt to appease their critics, the Veterans Benefits Administration officials have decided to withhold bonuses for senior executives who oversee disability claims, citing a failure to meet performance goals. Last month, VA spokesman Josh Taylor said the savings would be used to help reduce the backlog. The Center for Investigating Reporting claims the department paid its senior executives a total of $2.8 million in bonuses in the fiscal year 2011, with some staff members receiving payments of $23,091 each. Astounding when one considers 21.9 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans faced unemployment that very year.

But what should be the real food for thought this Memorial Day (maybe along with a few burgers) is this: not only are many Veterans facing serious barriers to adapting back to civilian life, they are currently returning home without any of the services they were promised when they enlisted available to them. And that sounds like a raw deal to us, so if you see a Veteran struggling, take this as a reminder to reach out to them.  You may be the only one really trying to.