On March 18 and 19, 2013, I attended the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Advisory Committee (VAAC) on Disability Compensation meeting in Washington, DC. My employer could (or would) not support my attendance, though Veterans' concerns are part of our mission and raison d'être. With an agenda touching on an array of topics, the meeting focused just one session directly on the disabilities compensation claims backlog that represents VA's greatest challenge and its lightening rod for criticism coming from veterans, their families, veterans advocates, the media, and elected officials. For some elected officials and many media outlets, concern over the claims case backlog originates less from authentic identification with its frustrating and often tragic impact on veterans and their family members and more from the political or sensationalist capital that can be wrung from stories of the human suffering resulting from slowly administered or unresolved Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) claims. As the meeting revealed, frustration and suffering are likely to continue for many veterans for the foreseeable future.
Despite its more comprehensive agenda, the meeting's discussions returned frequently to the case backlog, which led the Committee Chair, General James Terry Scott, to suggest that another meeting be arranged within the next two months to focus specifically on factors that continue to contribute to the backlog, even as the impact of proposed and enacted solutions to it appear to be negligible. Unavoidable were references to the fact that the backlog and the House Committee on Veterans Affairs' grilling of Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey during her testimony persistently dominate news about VA's struggles.
Among the plethora of agenda items covered during the committee meetings two days, the Monday afternoon session covering VA's Strategic Plan to Eliminate the Compensation Claims Backlog generated the most spirited discussion. Unfortunately, that discussion didn't take place until the next morning. While the committee listened closely to the presenter, who was certainly not the Deputy Director for the Office of Field Operations named to speak on the topic, they did not raise serious concerns for the report's optimism, to have no claim older than 125 days in the first quarter of 2014 and to have 98 percent accuracy on claims by 2015. It was on the morning of the second day, prior to the actual start of the meeting, that the committee raised concerns for these claims, in good part based on current performance of the electronic Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that is supposed to lead to these results. Unfortunately, their skepticism did not become part of the official record of the proceedings.
DKos Military Veterans and Military Community Members of Daily Kos are composed of many individuals, servicemembers, veterans and family members, who remain deeply concerned over how the case backlog affects veterans and their families. Our nation's failure to care for its veterans, to fulfill its social contract, once it has benefitted from their service and sacrifice, reflects a number of policies and practices covered in-depth at DKos that reveal common cause among our communities. Areas of concern here reflect those discussed under labor issues, the homeless, health care policy, civil rights, education, and many others. The current situation regarding the government's treatment of Wounded Warriors intersects with these topics and is crucial to the broader Progressive movement going forward.
According to Aaron Glantz at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), in the four years
after it was widely touted, a $537 million computer system [VBMS] has successfully processed 75 claims. And an effort to offload claims from the busiest offices has overloaded offices that previously had been performing well.No wonder the Advisory Committee expressed such concerns, despite the presentation's optimistic claims. As Glantz later notes, as of January of 2013, "the total number of veterans waiting for all claims had dipped slightly but remained above 900,000, with 630,000-–70 percent-–waiting longer than four months." Of course, it's not all gloom-and-doom, and Glantz does note cases in which CIR reporting did contribute to some veterans, especially in California, getting access to benefits for which they'd patiently waited. Oddly, one of these "happy endings" involved a World War II veteran who finally got a disabilities check, delivered several weeks after his death. However, other veterans' payments have come "just in time," and their lives are improving.
At the same time, as Glantz notes, such encouraging "outcomes are the exception," concluding that from July to December, "the average delay veterans across the nation faced increased by two weeks, to 273 days." These data are consistent to those cited in the VA Strategic Plan to elimate the backlog, but the Advisory Committee presenter stated obliquely that such apparently long delays actually reflect the agency's attempts to attack the backlog while new claims come in. It was assertions such as this that raised doubts among members of the Advisory Committee, who noted that such a long delay remained "unconscionable." Again, however, since these comments were spoken "off-the-record," their impact will almost certainly be blunted going forward.
What did not get much exposure at the Committee Meeting were more of those less optimistic stories that reside within the statistics showing wait times and delays. From 30,000 feet, observing bar charts and graphs, one is not seeing veterans, family members, and veteran service providers, as actual people. In this case, many in the DKos Veterans and Military Community actually do work directly with those veterans and their families. The picture there is one that often generates frustration and anger, rather than optimism.
In an NPR interview, whose link DaNang65 sent to me after the Advisory Committee meeting, Aaron Glantz expanded on some of these veterans' stories for Terry Gross: A veteran whose 600 day wait for mental health care resulted in increasing destitution and eventual homelessness; the tragic reality that the already inexcusable suicide rate among returning veterans could almost certainly be diminished if the case backlog and other bureaucratic problems, such as inadequate staffing and support personnel, could find resolution.
Unfortunately, it would appear, such tragedy and travesty will persist for some time, if this NavyTimes article's findings remain part of our veteran community's regular experience. According to Patricia Kimes' February 2013 report,
Ten months after announcing plans to hire 1,600 additional mental health professionals and staff to address shortages that have resulted in long wait times for care, the Veterans Affairs Department is two-thirds of the way to meeting its goal, VA officials announced Monday. VA has hired 1,058 mental health providers and 223 support staff personnel under an initiative launched in April 2012...Sadly, a lot can happen in 10 months, with far fewer staff in place than the original plan had requested. I know for a fact that this is not the best that our nation can do, and in performing as badly as we are for our veterans, the nation undermines the ethics and values it professes, as it undercuts its own current and future national security interests. For who will want to serve a nation that treats those who serve it so shabbily.
Thank you to my brothers and sisters in DKos Military Veterans and Military Community Members of Daily Kos for encouraging me to attend and write up this meeting. Bless you all.