Editorial Column – VA is Broken

VA Watchdog

After reading a number of e-mails and digesting their comments, I think I’d like to share my view of the Department of Veteran Affairs with you.

The National Cemetery Administration is the worst organization to deal with. Plain and simple, if your spouse is dealing with NCA, you’re dead! However, the NCA folks I’ve worked with are simply the greatest, most dedicated people I’ve met in Washington.

The Veterans’ Health Administration provides the best health care available in this country. Most of your non-VA physicians either did their internship or their residency at the VHA. Most of the successful prosthetic research done in this country is done by the VHA. There are, however, a lot of issues that need resolution.

—VHA employees are overworked and VAMCs are often understaffed. Last week I had a primary care appointment at VAMC Baltimore. It took almost two hours for a blood draw. There must have been 30 patients ahead of me and only two people doing the work. This can be solved in two ways, but both take money. More staff and better facilities Even if the blood draw clinic had been fully staffed, there’s only three work stations!

—VAMC staff are often “grouchy”. Live with it, they’re overworked and understaffed, I’d be grouchy too!!

—Access is also a pain in the butt. It takes too darn long to get an appointment. I agree, but than again it goes with staffing hospitals and clinics with people. I’ve waited 90 days for an appointment only to have them call that morning and cancel. Well, docs are people too. They have family emergencies, they get sick, they have car wrecks enroute to work. Anything that has ever happened to you in your life happens to them too! On the other hand, my Mom is a vet, and she waited 11 months for her appointment at the outpatient clinic. They cancelled it because the doc went on vacation. That’s poor management by the Hospital Director.

The solutions to VHA’s problems are really simple. Congress needs to pass mandatory funding for veterans healthcare and they need to fund the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) Commission recommendations for renovation and/or replacement of medical facilities. ( http://www.va.gov/cares/ ) I have one way to get ample funding for VAMC Washington. The Commander-in-Chief should deny health care for Congressmen at the National Naval Medical Center Bethesda. Instead, make them use VAMC Washington. VHA would get the money then!!

The Veterans Benefits Administration has more issues than you can shake a stick at. There is absolutely no reason for VBA to be hiring non-veterans. There is absolutely no reason for lawyers to be hired by VBA as claims adjudicators. VBA’s HR Department needs a complete retraining across the country. As a case in point, I applied for three positions as a Rating Veterans Service Representative with VBA – and I have ten years experience in claims work and am a 60% disabled vet. I qualified for a GS-11 position at one RO, but they filled the slot in-house; I qualified for a GS-13 position at another RO, but they hired an attorney; I was disqualified for a GS-10 position at a third RO due to lack of education. Many of the RVSR slots that are advertised on USAJobs are limited to in-house applicants only. That means that highly qualified non-VA employees can’t get them.

Part of this problem is caused by the Office of Personnel Management, whose “Position Classification Standard for Veterans Claims Examining Series, GS-0996” states “There is little doubt that persons with law degrees, upon entrance into this occupation, have a head start in learning how to adjudicate claims over persons without such training. For example, persons with a law school background normally are familiar with such matters as the admissibility of evidence, weight and credibility of evidence, domestic relations, and the descent and distribution of property. Persons without legal training have to gain this knowledge on the job.”

That my friends is a crock. If this was really the case than any RVSR who doesn’t have a law degree should be fired. If this is really the case why has VBA been trying to hire Registered Nurses as RVSRs? And that brings about the next question, which I have asked on G Street (VBA HQ) and never received an answer – If VBA wants RNs because of their familiarity with medical records, anatomy, and medical terminology, why aren’t they hiring veterans who served as Corpsmen and Medics?

OPM’s education requirements are as follows:
GS-5; Baccelaureate Degree
GS-7; One year of post-graduate education
GS-9; Master’s Degree, Doctor of Letters, or Doctor of Jurisprudence
GS-11; Doctor of Philosophy Degree

I would love to see how many Civil Service personnel meet these education requirements!!

Now from the veteran’s stand point, “VBA takes too long to process the claims.” “They have a Duty to Assist that they don’t perform.” “They denied my claim without a real reason.” “They took two years, even though they had all the evidence.” All of these are valid points, if you don’t understand the system.

First, VBA does take too long to process your claim. That’s a fact. Another fact is that as of 17 Nov, VBA had 645,630 claims in the system and 26.4% of those were over 180 days old. There were an additional 164,076 claims in appeal. That’s a total of 809,706 claims that need to be worked (according to VBA Monday Morning Reports). There are approximately 1,500 “worker bees” in VBA working these claims. If VBA shut its doors for a year and accepted no new claims, they might be able to catch up. However, they can’t. Right now they 51,815 claims more than this time last year. Again, money and more staff is necessary, but, it takes at least two years (I’ve been told) to take someone in and make a VSR out of them. Plus we lose production time for the claims examiners with meetings, training, Federal holidays, vacation, sick leave, and all of the myriad things employees do – and you did them too!

Second, VBA has a definite Duty to Assist. So do you. VBA will get your service records and medical records from the National Personnel Military Records Center in St. Louis. However, those records are often insufficient. Are there JAG Reports? Accident/Incident Reports? Ship’s Logs and/or Unit Diary Reports? If so where are they? VBA will get the records, but you need to tell them what records and where to look. By the way, if you are/were a sailor, and you ever come to Washington for a visit and you don’t go to the National Archives and get copies of those pertinent ship’s log entries on you, then it’s your fault too. Records that you provide the VBA are, for the most part, nice to have, but unless they came from the Feds to VBA direct, they’re normally ignored. I know you don’t like to hear that, but the truth is that some of us are less honest than others and have been known to change their DD-214s and records!

Third, they denied your claim for one reason, they didn’t have the necessary evidence to support the claim. It’s YOUR claim, you need to ensure that VBA has everything they need to process it.

If you’re representing yourself, or are using an attorney or some other individual, than you are making a mistake. You need to remember that you are NOT filing a claim WITH THE VBA. You ARE filing a claim AGAINST THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. VBA is not your friend. Their mission is two fold; to pay compensation to veterans who have valid claims against the government in accordance with existing law and to not pay on those claims which have not been validated. I’ll tell you without question that I cannot recommend a specific organization to represent you. Many service officers are good, a few are great, and a few are really bad. I can recommend specific individuals in certain geographic areas. I know of good service officers throughout the country, some are county, some are state, and some work for veterans’ service organizations. You should also keep in mind that many service officers have built relationships with the staff at the RO and can get things done based on a conversation rather than a garbage truck full of letters.

Appeals are a whole different ball game. They do take quite some time. Currently VBA has, as I said, 164,076 claims in appeal. That’s VBA. That doesn’t include the Board of Veteran Appeals or the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims. After deciding 39,076 appeals, the BVA ended FY 2006 with 40,265 appeals pending and estimate receiving an additional 43,000 appeals in FY 2007. At that rate, the BVA will never catch up. The Board reports that it takes about 148 working days from receipt of a claim to adjudication.

As an FYI, based on a percentage of appeals submitted, BVA says AMVETS has the best rate in winning for their clients, followed by PVA and DVA and MoPH tied for third. VFW lost their appeals two-thirds of the time (Report of the Chairman of the VBA, 2006). CAVC, on the other hand, for FY 2007 received 4,644 appeals and adjudicated 4,877 appeals (Report of the Chief Judge). The Court reports that the average time from receipt to adjudication of an appeal is 416 days. Keep in mind there are only 256 working days in a year.

Now, in my view, there’s three separate issues here. First, the BVA is part of the VA and reports to the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs. I think the BVA should be removed from VA and set up as an independent agency. Second, frivolous claims. Too many vets refuse to believe their claim is invalid and appeal the VBA decision. These frivolous claims slow down the system. Third, the responsibilities of the CAVC should be changed to give them the same legal capabilities as any other Federal Appellate Court.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I know I’m a bit long-winded, but I think the worker bees of the Department of Veteran Affairs do an excellent job. I think the political appointees also do a creditable job. I think there is room for improvement in the way VA management handles their job.

I do not believe that the United States Congress or the House Veteran Affairs Committee do their job to the best of their ability. I do not believe the President of the United States has done his job, with regard to our disabled and indigent veterans. Above all, I do not believe that “We the People” have done our jobs either. We have been complacent in our attitudes towards the government and apathetic in our attitudes towards the war. If we want POTUS, the Congress, and VA to do their jobs, it’s up to us to do our job. We have the ultimate oversight responsibility, let’s exercise it.

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