How often have you wrangled with your employer’s health care provider to resolve a claim? A week? A month? Two months? How does eight months sound to you as an average for getting even a response to your most immediate need? Such is the case with our returning veterans and their entreaties for assistance from our US Department of Veterans Affairs.
There are several phrases used by veterans to highlight their frustration, but “Delay, deny, wait till I die” is the most common rebuke directed at the incompetence of the one agency that is supposed to care for their urgent needs once they are repatriated stateside and discharged from military service. Nearly one million claims are clogged in the VA pipeline of red tape and bureaucratic bungling, awaiting proper attention and adjudication.
With everything else in the news demanding attention, the lack of support devoted to serving our ailing military heroes often gets pushed back into the shadows of mediocrity. Perhaps it is a reflection of a collective guilty conscience, as our society refuses to honor those that have served and risked the most in protecting our liberty and freedoms. Modern day warfare provides more protection for the individual soldier from loss of life, but casualty rates have soared, as a consequence, and the VA is forever stuck in catch-up mode. Continuing budget cuts or the lack of adequate funding have not helped either.
A House subcommittee opened a hearing last week entitled, “Increasing the Functionality of Post 9/11 GI Bill Claims Processing to Reduce Delays.” In his opening remarks, Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) said:
“Congress authorized $100 million to develop a new system, what is now called the Long Term Solution, or LTS. Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill became law, this subcommittee has held at least seven hearings on the program including the new LTS… But like most things it also had negative results, because that decision left original claims relatively unautomated. As a result, an original claim still takes about 45 minutes to process, a time little changed from 2009.”
And therein lies the problem. As long as you have an original claim on record that has been processed, the LTS will zip through a supplemental claim without human intervention in a matter of seconds. The Catch-22 is getting that original claim through the system, a process that averaged 273 days during 2012, up from 161 days in 2009. In heavy urban centers, however, the wait can be excessive:15 months in Chicago, 16 months in New York and a-year-and-a-half in Los Angeles.
And what if you disagree with the finding? Those veterans that file an appeal for a denied claim may have to wait as long as 3½ years for an answer. Our officials, however, have not sat on their hands. They have approved more than $300 million to automate manual processes and have authorized the hiring of an additional 3,300 claim processors since 2010, but the intended results have been slow in coming. President Obama promised a more efficient government for all, but the VA must not have been copied on that email.
The problems of the VA have been a recurring broken record that keeps being played administration after administration. President George W. Bush, after leaving office, has often been seen promoting local golfing events that support veteran causes, but his record while in office was one of directed budget-cutting, especially in the area of veterans' benefits.
The fact is that everyone severely underestimated the number of returning casualties that would arise from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Claiming that budgets increased, when actual needs were increasing at a much higher rate, is not the sign of courageous action when the courageous actions of veterans need to be honored and recognized.
Aaron Glantz, a journalist for the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of many articles on this topic, has also reported, “Over the last three years, the number of veterans dying before their claims are processed has skyrocketed.” Many have labeled the burgeoning backlog of benefit claims as a “national embarrassment," but, despite the recurring spotlight on the issue, material improvement seems elusive, at best.
The issue did find its way to Rachel Maddow’s agenda for last evening’s show. She highlighted many of these same issues and sought to drum up more support for accountability and corrective action. She noted one of Glantz’s findings: “Four years after it was widely touted, a $537 million computer system has successfully processed 75 claims.” How is that for a reasonable return on our taxpayers’ dollars? What company had that government contract? Did it make any large campaign contributions during the last election cycle and to whom? Whether representatives at a House subcommittee hearing are listening, rather than reiterating the obvious, is doubtful.
One anonymous quote summarizes the ongoing frustration of our veteran community with their employers' health care plans: “This country is capable of drafting you, putting you in boot camp, teaching you to kill someone, and then putting you in a war zone within six months. So, why can't they process a claim that fast?” As a former serviceman in the military, I concur. Something has got to change and quickly! Lean Forward!
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References: Embedded links provided, but points made are primarily the opinion of the author.