Monday, December 3, 2012

I've received an overwhelming number of responses to my story late last week on the Senate's order to the Department of Veterans Affairs to come up with a plan of action to reduce the shameful backlog of more than 900,000 veteran disability claims in the next 60 days. 

Many of these responses have been filled with understandable skepticism. A lot of veterans and other readers of this blog insist that, despite the evidently good intentions of the politicians behind this move, nothing will really change at the VA. 

A woman whose husband is awaiting a PTSD claim says, "Not so sure this is gonna help anything. They will just deny the majority to push them through and say they have been processed. I will believe it when I see it. Been waiting far too long for a decision on my husband's PTSD claim. It took us almost 10 years on his back disability claim. It will take a lot more than a simple timeline to fix what is broken."

A veteran writes, "I've been told twice they are doing an inquiry into why my rating has been approved and why it's past due... simple problem solved would be to hire mostly veterans to do the jobs most of these lazy civilians don't give a f*** about because to them its BS, we get all this money. If veterans were doing the claims all 900,000 of them would be done by the 1st of the year!"

Another veteran writes, "The VA is implementing a new program to process claims called Veterans Benefits Management System or VBMS. People who work at the VA have told me that VBMS is in practice short for 'Very Big Mess' because it does not work and will only add to the backlog. Bottom line is that there are a great number of highly complex claims and not enough experienced employees with the intelligence, wisdom, time and integrity to accurately work these claims. I do not see any solution to the problems under the current regime."

And another reader says, "For the Vietnam vets with serious heart-related issues, I think the VA is dragging it out and hoping they die before their claims get processed. The VA just started allowing heart disease claims related to Agent Orange about 2 years ago. If the vet dies before the claim is processed no one gets the money."

I hear these kinds of comments every day. The frustration is very real and widespread and obviously comes from years of dealing with the VA's sometimes mind-numbing bureaucracy, lack of timely care, and increasingly high error rate on claims. 

The department has failed to heed consistent warnings from such noted veterans advocates as Paul Sullivan at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that focuses on veteran compensation claims. Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran who once worked at VA, has been a leading voice for veterans for years and has spoken out specifically on the disability backlog. 

Speaking to Sullivan these past few days, I get the sense that he is hopeful and even optimistic that the Senate order will lead to positive changes.

But I absolutely understand why there is so much cynicism out there. The thing is, there are many dedicated people at the VA who obviously know how bad the problem is and wish they could do more to fix it. But they are afraid to speak to me on the record for fear of losing their job. 

It's the entrenched and sometimes oppressive management culture there that must change. And this Senate order is a positive first step. Yes, it could indeed result in demonstrable and lasting changes at the VA. It remains to be seen, of course. But I am guardedly optimistic.

The reason for encouragement is at least in part because this Senate move is a rare bipartisan effort. To take a page from Paddy Chayefsky's Oscar-winning screenplay for the film Network, Senators are clearly mad as hell at the VA for its lack of openness and disclosure and they're not gonna take it anymore! 

And President Obama has already said that the backlog must be addressed. He reiterated that commitment last month during an impassioned Veterans Day speech.  

The Senator that spearheaded the order last week, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, seems equally determined to make real changes. Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, filed an amendment Wednesday to the defense authorization bill that will require the VA to implement Texas’ model on a national scale. Ideally this will streamline the claims process and reduce the backlog.

During a recent media conference call, Cronyn said, “I am pleased to say the Texas Veterans Commission (TVC) has taken a state-level initiative to clear out the backlog. My amendment would help with that same initiative on a national scale."

A report in the Denton Record-Chronicle over the weekend explains that the TVC recently formed a partnership with the VA to assist Texas veterans whose claims are backlogged, and to help veterans making new claims to file fully developed ones, which is important in shortening the processing time.

“It goes without saying there are vets that have served the ultimate devotion and they deserve to be treated fairly,” Cornyn said.

The backlog of disability claims for our warriors is nothing less than a national disgrace. It must be fixed. The Senate now seems to be on the same page as the President on this. Good things are hopefully in store. Stay tuned to this blog for updates on any and all changes at the VA. 

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