Veterans wait nearly a year on average for their disability claims to get processed at the Oakland, Calif., regional center, according to a highly critical federal report released Thursday, leading one congressman to call the facility a bureaucratic "black hole."The Oakland office, which processes benefits claims for veterans from Bakersfield, Calif., north to the Oregon border, had almost 32,500 claims pending an average of 269 days - 89 days longer than the national target time - when the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general visited in December. As of April, the wait for veterans had increased to 320 average days pending.
This is not the wait time issue that the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on April 25th or that the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on this week. The issue here is the VA claims processing and the VA's offered tons and tons of excuses over the last years. They've told Congress it had to do with equipment issues (computers and computer programs -- "IT" problems, that was an especially popular excuse in 2009) and staffing. In the last years, they've repeatedly insisted that hiring more people wouldn't actually help them because new hires would require training and that would create further delays. For that argument to be valid, the only ones who can train new claims processors are those people who are claims processors. Apparently supervisors don't know how to do the job that those they supervise do.
In addition to the claim, the VA's also had to note that production has become an issue. They have more claims processors than they did in 2005 but the larger number of personnel has coincided with a decrease in the number of claims processed. So while personnel has increased, productivity has decreased. And before you think this is because of new veterans being created by today's wars, that's not the case. Some of these claims have lingered and lingered. For one example, let's drop back to a February 28th House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing:
Ranking Member Bob Filner: We got several hundred thousand claims for Agent Orange in our backlog. How long have they been fighting it? Thirty, forty years. People get sicker fighting the bureaucracy than they did with the Agent Orange. So you know what we ought to do -- aside from greatly expanding eligibility to boots on the ground, to the blue waters, to the blue skies and Thailand and Cambodia and Laos and Guam? We ought to honor those Agent Orange claims today. You know, let's give people the peace that they deserve. Let's give you finally some closure here. And, you know, they're telling us, "It costs too much." I don't know if it's a billion dollars or two billion dollars. I don't care what it is frankly. You don't think we owe it to you? We owe it to you.
Among the Congress members calling out the backlog for years now are US House Rep Bob Filner, Senator Patty Murray (Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee), Senator Richard Burr (Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee), Daniel Akaka (former Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee) and US House Rep Phil Roe. They have consistently attempted to make sense of this problem and why it is just not dealt with year after year. We're dropping back to a February 15th House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing when VA Secretary Eric Shinseki offered testimony.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: And I just want to ask a couple -- focus on a couple areas that I've been involved with over the years. One is the claims backlog. In your budget presentation ou title it "Eliminate The Claims Backlog." But I don't see any real estimate or projection or anything of when you think you're going to do that but I still think that -- in the short run, at least -- to get this turned around your notion of -- I think you used the word "brute force" a few years ago, if I recall that.
Secretary Eric Shinseki: It was probably a poor choice of words.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: No, it's okay. It was good. Gives me something to shoot at, you know? I don't think it's going to work. I just think all this stuff you have is good stuff but it's too big and, as you point out, there's all kind of factors making it bigger. I still think you have to take some, I'll say, radical step in the short run -- whether it's to grant all the Agent Orange claims that have been submitted or have been there for X number of years or, as I've suggested at other times, all claims that have the medical information in it and have been submitted with the help of a Veterans Service Officer you accept subject to audit. That is, unless you take some real radical step to eliminate a million of them or 500,000 of them, you're never going to get there. It's going to always be there. You don't want that as your legacy -- I don't think. So -- Nor do we. I think you're going to have to take some really strong steps in terms of accepting stuff that's been in the pipeline a long time, again, that has adequate -- by whatever definition -- documentation and help from professional support. Plus this incredible situation of Agent Orange where, as you know, not only have those claims increaded but we're talking about -- as you well know -- your comrades for thirty or more years that have been wrestling with this. Let's give the Vietnam vets some peace. Let's give them a real welcome home. Let's grant those Agent Orange claims. Let's get those -- whatever it is, 100,000 or 200,000 of our backlog -- just get them off the books. I don't know if you want to comment on that but I still think you're never going to get there with -- All this is good stuff. We've talked about it on many occasions. But it's not going to fundamentally -- or at least in the short run change it around so you can get to a base level of zero or whatever you want to be and move forward from there.
Secretary Eric Shinseki: Mr. Filner, I'll call on Secretary Hickey for the final details but we've pretty much worked through the Agent Orange -- the increase in Agent Orange claims. I think we're well down on the numbers. I'll rely on her statistic here.
And, of course, despite that claim, the numbers weren't down and that's why, weeks later (as we noted in the first Congressional excerpt), US House Rep Filner would be bringing up the issue of claims processing regarding Agent Orange again.
Here's something to consider: What if service members were as slow to process orders from command as the VA is to process the claims of veterans?
On the issue of wait time and mental health care, the editorial board of Florida's TCPalm.com concludes, "The VA must do a better job than it has been doing in dealing with the very real mental health needs of those who have given so much to this country." That's true of the wait time and it's also true of the claims processing.
Daniel Sagalyn (PBS' The NewsHour -- link is text only) offers a must-read report on the battle over Post-Traumatic Stress.
The following community sites -- NYT, Antiwar.com and Tavis Smiley -- updated last night and this morning:
And Mike's "Look who wants back in" and Trina's "Vesta." Jill Stein is running for the Green Party's presidential nomination. Her campaign notes:
Join Dr. Stein's Green Surge!This is your call to action: The leaders of most of the world's most powerful nations are meeting in Chicago. Their vision is of a world dependent on fossil fuels, a global labor market based on low wages and high unemployment, and a global political system that uses war to maintain order. Our vision is entirely different. We know we can win the peaceful, just, green future we all deserve.
Join Dr. Stein, Michelle Shocked, and friends on the weekend of Friday, May 18 through the 20th as we march, rally, petition and celebrate the world we intend to win. Join the Green Surge as we make the green movement a visible presence in the streets, and as we signatures to put the Illinois Green Party back on the ballot.
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