Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Radical Notion

The Veterans Administration is staggering under the burden of caring for those wounded and/or psychically damaged by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, the VA has a backlog of over 600,000 cases (Air Force Times) pending determination of disability and benefits.

Tuesday Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes testified before the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance, where she asserted that all claims filed by veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq should be immediately accepted at face value.

Bilmes, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has been studying veterans’ medical care and disability benefits and said the current backlog overwhelmed a system that was already struggling under budget cuts before the wars started; and that now things only stand to get worse. She predicts 250,000 to 400,000 claims will be filed over the next two years alone by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, creating a situation that she said “will rapidly turn the disability claims problem into a crisis.”

This just makes sense. Since 88 percent of disability claims are approved, spot-checking and audits would be enough to ensure the fairness of the system. In fact, the system she proposes would be better for those who apply for benefits.

Bilmes also proposes changes to the disability rating system. The current system ranks disability between zero and 100 percent, in 10-percentage point increments. Bilmes proposes dividing disability into four rankings: zero, low, medium or high disability. “This would immediately streamline the process, reduce discrepancies between regions and likely cut the number of appeals,” she said.

The ideas offered by Bilmes are definitely worth considering. If there is one thing that we know, for certain, novel thinking is how challenges get met and how problems get solved. In other words, don't stay the course. Instead, try steering away from the iceberg. The Bilmes Protocol offers steering away from the iceberg.

Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance, said the recommendations might help.

“The idea of giving veterans the benefit of the doubt sounds good to me,” Hall said at the hearing.

Brady Van Engelen, a wounded Iraq war veteran, said veterans and their families are suffering. “We may end up with an entire generation of veterans who have no faith in our VA because those running it — as well as those overseeing it — were unable to hold up their end of the bargain,” he said.

“We did not prepare for this, and it is painfully evident,” said Van Engelen. “My generation is going to have to pay for this, and we will be paying for years and years.”

As the wars grind on and the flood of wounded shows no sign of abating, and the DoD health system continues to dump patients into the VA system it negatively impacts all veterans who use the system.

It is incumbent on our nation that we take care of those who serve.

It is time to fully fund the VA, and the Bilmes Protocol should be accepted and enacted immediately. Enact it with the caveat of oversight by the Veterans Affairs Committee and an Inspector General. But enact it. The VA Health system stands at a critical juncture, and bold, decisive action is needed. While the system bogs down, veterans suffer. The stories of eviction and homelessness as cases wend through the system are starting to appear.

Decency mandates that we give these men and women who volunteer to serve the benefit of the doubt when they claim they were damaged by war. To not do so is downright disgraceful.