Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How Can We Mend A Broken System for America's Veterans?

The chronic disability claims problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have reached epidemic proportions. According to the VA’s own inspector general, nearly 900,000 American veterans now wait an average of 292 days for a claim decision - and the VA still gets these claims wrong nearly one third of the time. 

The only good news in this national crisis is that the situation has finally gotten the national media attention it deserves. As I noted recently in The Daily Beast, we're now seeing newspaper editorial boards and magazines calling the VA claims mess a “national disgrace” and insisting that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resign. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is calling for the resignation of Allison Hickey, the VA’s head of benefits.

But beyond the calls for VA executives' heads, is anyone stepping forward with any truly viable ideas that will fix this broken system? Bergmann & Moore (B&M), a law firm whose only clients are veterans with disability claims, has some good ideas. 

Last week, the Austin American-Statesman printed an op-ed piece written by B&M's partners Glenn R. Bergmann and Joseph R. MooreThe article, “Practical Solutions Can Solve VA Claims Nightmare,” is a clear-eyed take on what must be done to reverse this chronic problem for veterans.

Here are some of B&M's recommended solutions to the claims crisis:

The VA must become more tech-savvy, such as implementing a new computerized claim processing system. However, the VA’s highly touted Veterans Benefits Management System crashed in April, and several top VA officials involved with implementing VBMS recently departed the VA, casting significant doubt on the project’s success.
• The VA should hire more and then better train its dedicated yet overworked staff. However, VA only increased staffing by a few hundred the past few years, and training remains incomplete.
• The VA should streamline obsolete regulations so both veterans and the VA better understand the process, a reform recommended a decade ago, yet not completed.
• The VA’s myopic emphasis appears to be on deciding claims quickly, not accurately. The VA’s production culture must shift and emphasize quality, a change that worked well for our auto industry.
• The VA should be more transparent so that Congress and the public are not forced to rely on investigative reporters to learn about the depth of the VA’s crisis.
• The VA should expand the agency’s focus from new and simple claims by reviewing all claims, including appealed claims languishing for years.
• VA should work with the Department of Defense and adopt a single computerized lifetime electronic record to address the issue of missing military records that often endlessly delay claim processing. President Barack Obama promised this reform in 2009, yet it stalled this year.
In addition to B&M's opinion piece, last week the Statesman’s editorial board wrote a separate editorial, “VA Fix Requires More than Promises,” which verbally chastised VA for giving out generous bonuses to executives during a time when the waiting lists for veterans grew significantly.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that B&M has some smart solutions to the problems at VA. The law firm has long been on the front lines fighting for veterans with disability claims. Yes, contrary to popular belief, sometimes lawyers are the good guys.  

Speaking of good guys, B&M's managing director of veterans outreach is Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran who once worked at VA. Sullivan is arguably the nation's most accomplished advocate for veterans. As a journalist I have frequently turned to him over the years for reliable, valuable and current information about veterans and the VA. 

Thanks to Sullivan and the other folks at Bergmann & Moore, we now have a cogent, sensible, real-world list of solutions for the VA to hopefully consider.


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