Too many veterans are forced, by paperwork backlogs, to wait a long time for their disability benefits. Solutions are needed, but it appears they, too, will take longer than anyone wished.
Washington has not ignored the delays — which stem from a number of causes — but it must keep applying pressure to simplify the system and whittle down the backlog. Progress so far is unsatisfactory.
Last week, the U.S. House approved legislation that includes more funding to help ease the backlogs, through such means as 94 additional claims processors and an ongoing transition to electronic records. The measure also would take some existing money and redirect it to help regional Veterans Affairs centers with the worst backlogs.
Congressmen voted for the legislation (H.R. 2216). It now goes to the Senate, which should treat it as a priority — and be willing to further increase funding, if necessary.
Numerous and complex
VA officials note that disability claims are not only more numerous than in the past but also more medically complex.
Difficulty in obtaining complete medical history and personnel records (often from the Department of Defense) is a leading cause of delays, according to testimony given at a March hearing before the Senate’s Committee on Veterans Affairs. Also creating problems are misplaced and lost documents, a result of the “multiple hand-offs” involved in paperwork, according to the Government Accountability Office.
A speaker at the Senate hearing said that 37 percent “of our inventory and backlog” stem from Vietnam-era veterans; Gulf War veterans constitute 23 percent; veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are 20 percent; and World War II- and Korea-era veterans make up less than 10 percent.
Fewer than 40 percent of the backlogged claims are from first-time filers. The majority are “supplemental” claims, VA Undersecretary Allison Hickey told senators.
Demand for disability benefits is “at an all-time high,” Hickey said. “We have added more than 940,000 veterans, almost a million veterans to the VA compensation rolls, by completing their claims over the past four years, which is more than today’s active duty, Army and Navy combined.
“Coupled with this increase are the impacts of claims associated with Agent Orange exposure and the dramatic increase in the number of individual medical issues included inside each claim,” Hickey explained.
Claims are considered “backlog” after 125 days. Through much of 2012, the average time it took for the VA to complete a claim was 260 days, according to a report by the GAO. Long waits for benefit decisions pose great challenges for those veterans who face serious illness, foreclosure and such. They deserve a prompt answer.
Steps are being taken
The good news on this issue is that steps are being taken to reduce procedural hurdles, improve records access and handle claims as well as appeals. Congress in recent years has directed more funding to these efforts, and federal agencies are at least pledging to improve coordination.
Yet there remains much room for improvement, with little time to implement change before waves of new claims roll in.
It is not easy for large bureaucracies to transform themselves into nimble efficiency — especially when some of the needed records are decades old or even nonexistent. But every day in which veterans are left dangling in doubt about their benefits is one too many.
In our high-tech age, we should be able to solve this problem. Honor demands it for our veterans.
From the Panama City News Herald