Published: November 23, 2012
"No veteran should have to wait months or years for the benefits that you've earned," President Obama said in a Veterans Day speech, "so we will continue to attack the claims backlog. We won't let up. We will not let up."
He had better not let up, given that the Department of Veterans Affairs, in the long slog through its own paperwork, is in some ways marching backward. Through July of this year, 66 percent of claims for disability compensation and pensions were still pending more than 125 days after being filed, missing the department's own timeliness goals. That is up from 60 percent in 2011.
There is a separate quagmire for veterans who appeal a rejected claim — the average time between the filing of an appeal and its resolution is nearly two and a half years. If a veteran fights a losing appeal in the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, that is another journey of months or years. The court might send a case back for more review, and more delay. Veterans' advocates call that "the hamster wheel."
Give the Department of Veterans Affairs some sympathy: in the last decade, its workload exploded. Veterans filed more than 1.3 million claims in 2011, double the number of 2001. The department says about 45 percent of recent veterans are seeking benefits, each with about 11 to 15 medical issues, vastly higher than the historical rate after World War II and Vietnam. Many Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are returning with severe injuries requiring elaborate and complicated care. The population of Vietnam-era veterans is older and sicker than ever. And the list of ailments for which the department is giving compensation — like heart disease, leukemia and Parkinson's, from exposure to Agent Orange — is growing.
The only answers to this vexing situation seem to be more staffing, better training and technology. The Veterans Affairs Department says that it is becoming better at organizational efficiency and that its paper-bound benefits bureaucracy will be overhauled by the end of 2013, when all 56 regional offices will have digitized systems — no more hunting through fat folders held together with rubber bands.
There is also the possibility of fixing the "hamster wheel." A veteran's widow is hoping that the Supreme Court next year will take a case seeking to empower the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to close cases on its own rather than remanding so many back to the departmental maze. More immediately, the veterans' agency needs to be realistic in communicating about the delays, so veterans can get on with their lives while they wait.
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The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.