March 6, 2009 – It’s not as dramatic but it’s just as heart-breaking – and as anger-making — as our government’s pitiful performance during Katrina.
I’m talking about employees in our Department of Veterans affairs putting ten of thousands of unopened letters containing benefit claims in desk drawers or in bins awaiting shredding.
I’m talking about the vets or their survivors who call to check on the status of a claim, only to be told that the VA has no record of their claim and that they should resubmit their paperwork.
I’m talking about the woman who claimed she had to submit paperwork to the VA three times to prove she was married and had three children.
I’m talking about vets’ survivors who have to wait six to nine months for simple claims to be approved.
I’m talking about workers at a Detroit VA regional office who turned in 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail during an “amnesty” period.
I’m talking about VA managers who told their staffs to post-date claims to make it appear the claims were being processed faster. A review found that 56 percent of claims had incorrectly recorded the dates when they were received, which in many cases determine the effective date for benefits payments. That raises serious questions about how many past claims have been delayed or denied.
When this news broke, there was the totally predictable outcry from Congress men and women, whose “support our troops and our vets and their families” has become an easy staple on their road to reelection. We’re shocked! Shocked!
Rep. Bob Filner of California, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has said he “has made it his priority to ensure that our veterans receive the honor and dedicated care that their courage and bravery demand.” He has said he has directed his Committee to improve the health care and benefits for our veterans. He claims that he continues to fight to ensure that Congress keeps the promises that have been made to our veterans, not only the new generation of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan but also the generations from past conflicts.
Similar sentiments have been expressed by Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii – a World War Two vet — who is chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the Senate. Sen. Akaka says he is “determined to honor this nation’s veterans by ensuring they receive the care and benefits they have earned through selfless service.”
So where was the Congressional oversight that’s supposed to prevent this kind of outrage?
But if this latest outrage came as a surprise to Congress and to most of the American people, to others, it was an old story — albeit not the type that gets page one treatment or lots of time on cable news, like the unforgivable deficiencies exposed at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Kathryn Witt of Gold Star Wives of America said survivors trying to receive VA benefits have long complained about problems getting accurate information and missing claims.
And Kerry Baker of the Disabled American Veterans said, “A large section of the veterans community and representatives of the community have long felt that the Veterans Benefits Administration operates in such a way that stalls the claims process until frustrated claimants either give up or die.”
“Give up or die.” Think about it. You’re back from active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and you’ve been injured. Or your spouse, or your son or daughter, won’t ever be coming back, and you’re trying to get the government to pay the debt they keep saying is so well earned.
Just filling out the paperwork would be tough enough under these circumstances. But can you imagine the unspeakable frustration you would feel after you file your claim and then – silence. You hear from no one, or you’re told your claim was never received. Can you think of anything more likely to push a vet or a vet’s family over the edge?
Why has this kind of stuff been happening for so many years? The main reason is that the VA is grossly under-staffed. And the reason it’s so under-staffed is that it’s operating with quill pens. Most of its so-called information technology is like something out of the 19th century, which means that claimants’ records are on un-digitized paper.
Paper that piles up in people’s desk drawers or in shredding bins.
When he appointed retired general Eric Shinseki to head the VA, President Obama said, “We owe it to all our veterans to honor them as we honored our greatest generation, not just with words, but with deeds.” Obama said Shinseki was the right person to cut red tape, boost funding, and bring benefits to veterans.
“Not just with words, but with deeds.”
Eric Shinseki is a smart guy. A guy who really cares about veterans and their families. But the task he confronts, just in this small corner of the VA, is Herculean.
Let’s hope he’s the kind of “bring-it-on” guy who’s really ready to “cut red tape, boost funding, and bring benefits to veterans.”
But he shouldn’t have to do it all alone. We can help him by writing our representatives in Congress.