Although the number of veterans' disability claims keep soaring,… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)
It is shameful that veterans of the United States military have to wait months, and sometimes more than a year, to begin receiving the benefits they are owed after their years of service. Yet that is the case.
Almost 900,000 veterans across the country currently have claims pending for disability, pension or education benefits; nearly 600,000 of those claims are considered backlogged by the Department of Veterans Affairs — meaning they have already taken more than 125 days to process. According to a report released in March by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the average time a veteran must wait before receiving benefits is 273 days, although veterans filing their first claims wait an average of 316 to 327 days. Those filing for the first time in Los Angeles wait an average of 619 days, according to the report.
The backlog has been repeatedly and publicly bemoaned in recent weeks, and officials of the VA have been appropriately contrite. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki vowed publicly this month that by 2015, no one would have to wait more than 125 days.
"This has been decades in the making, 10 years of war," Shinseki told CNN. "No veteran should have to wait for claims. If there's anybody impatient here, I am that individual, and we're pushing hard."
But 2015 is two years from now, and 125 days is still an unacceptably long time. Some older vets and more vulnerable ones caught in the morass of paperwork and processing may not survive the wait.
To a certain extent, this problem is the result of factors beyond the control of any official or claims processor. With the return of more than 1 million Americans from 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan — wars in which more service members survived than ever before — and the aging of Vietnam and Korean war veterans, demand for benefits has increased dramatically and overwhelmed the VA's processing abilities. In addition, in 2009, officials approved three more medical conditions — Parkinson's, ischemic heart disease and B-cell leukemias — for coverage for Vietnam War-era veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, which has added to the demand. The VA has also accepted as eligible for benefits veterans with several diseases associated with Gulf War Illness syndrome and any combat veteran of any war with documented post-traumatic stress disorder.
For the fiscal years 2010 to 2012, the agency processed 1 million claims a year. But that wasn't fast enough. In 2010, it received 1.2 million claims. In 2011, 1.3 million new claims. In 2012, 1.08 million claims. Thus, the backlog grew from 180,000 to 600,000 currently, according to testimony this month before the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs by Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for benefits at the VA.
But there are things that can be done to speed up this process. Above all, the VA needs to stop processing all this paperwork ... on paper. It needs to switch to an electronic system as soon as possible. If the Internal Revenue Service still processed all claims for tax refunds on paper, Americans would be rioting in the streets, protesting the wait.
There are several things the agency is preparing to do that will make the process faster. Officials do say that claims-gathering will be digitized by the end of this year. The agency also plans to create fast-track lanes for veterans filing claims that cover two problems or fewer (for instance, claiming two service-related disabling conditions instead of four).
Also, sometimes veterans' claims languish so long that the underlying medical reports have expired and the administration insists on a new exam, which can take a couple of months to get. Instead of that, the VA has begun a process that allows veterans' doctors to fill out a questionnaire and submit it.
A spokesperson for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said his office had been told that the L.A. regional benefits office hired about 35 more employees late last year and hopes to cut homeless veterans' average wait time to 80 days.
All this is promising, but there's a long way to go. The Department of Veterans
Affairs needs to tackle this issue aggressively and try to beat its own deadline of 2015. The United States owes it to the nation's veterans.