Wednesday, November 28, 2007

With the V.A. overwhelmed, Veterans suffer needlessly

The Department of Veterans Affairs has produced it's annual year-end report to the congress, and for the third year running, the rate at which the V.A. acts to render decisions on disability claims fell further behind.

While the goal is to make determinations within 125 days, the reality is, on average it takes a claim 183 days to be acted on.

When a claim is rejected and appealed, the goal is to act on that appeal within one year, or 365 days. In reality, rejected claims take on average 660 days to be acted on; just under two years.

The VA has responded to this backlog by hiring new personnel, but it takes a reviewer two to three years to become efficient at their job, and the backlogs had a huge head start. While new personnel have been hired, and are being trained and gaining the acumen to do their jobs efficiently, veterans continue to be caught in limbo.

And when it is all said and done, just under 90% of all claims are found to be reasonable and valid, and the veteran receives the benefits he or she is due.

Very few wounded veterans have the ready resources that politicians seem to take for granted, and virtually none have the resources of the Bush clan. While they wait for their benefit determinations, they often face poverty, destitution and homelessness. No returning soldier should face homelessness, and no soldier should be relieved that they lost both arms because then the VA will have to give them a 100% disability rating!

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That is why I favor the heartbreakingly simple approach advocated by Linda Bilmes of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard: Give the Veteran the benefit of the doubt. Provisionally approve all claims made by Veterans for disability benefits, and don't withhold health care benefits while the claim is under review by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Bilmes has been studying veterans’ medical care and disability benefits for years, and it is her considered and esteemed opinion that the current backlog simply overwhelmed a system that was already struggling under budget cuts before the wars started and created a whole bunch of new veterans needing services. Now things only stand to get worse. Last spring, in testimony before a congressional subcommittee, she predicted 250,000 to 400,000 claims will be filed over the next two years alone by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This, she maintained, would create a situation that she said “will rapidly turn the disability claims problem into a crisis.” The problems of the VA are exacerbated as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on and on with no end in sight, and and the flood of wounded shows no sign of abating. And the DoD health system continues to dump patients into the underfunded VA system. This negatively impacts all veterans who use the system.

Keep in mind that Bilmes offered this testimony nearly a year ago, before the latest information on TBI was publicized.

The most recent findings are the result of percussive experiments conducted on animals, then the animals were sacrificed and the brain tissue examined microscopically. In the animal studies, scientists have discovered a fundamentally different injury than the “concussion” wound that has traditionally been ascribed to exposure to explosions. A concussion is essentially a bruise on the brain that generally heals with time.

Brain damage at the cellular level is likely permanent – and will almost certainly lead to further neurological degradation over time. Put bluntly, G.I.’s afflicted by TBI are not likely to get better, and in fact will get worse. How much worse is still unknown, but this will strain the system even further.

When the V.A. falters, it is the Veterans who stepped up and served who pay the price - again! - and who suffer as a result. That is a situation I find wholly intolerable. And frankly, anyone who professes unflagging support for the troops, but isn't hopping mad about the way our veterans are being treated once back home, should probably not profess their patriotism in direct proximity to me.

They gave the government the benefit of the doubt that they would not be sorely used when they joined up - the government owes them the same courtesy in return.