August 20, 2008 – How much more can veterans be asked to endure?
First, they are sent to fight in hostile conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes more than once. Their tours of duty are extended. Some are injured by gunfire, an improvised explosive device, or suffer a mental disorder because of the constant stress.
They return to the states and need medical attention. If they’re lucky, they will only have to wait four months to receive it.
Four months is the national average. In the Washington, D.C., area, it is more like six months, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
It’s no wonder that veterans groups nationwide are upset. Two organizations, Veterans United for Truth and Veterans for Common Sense, have filed suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs, demanding reform. Though a judge threw out their suit over a jurisdictional issue, the groups have appealed.
That the VA has had problems responding to veterans’ needs is not news. But the problem is rapidly worsening, despite signs only a year ago that the situation might improve.
In May 2007, Congress boosted funding to improve VA facilities, beef up mental-health services and expedite disability claims. Two months later, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson stepped down, part of a move to bring fresh leadership, and a presidential commission recommended broad reforms in veterans care that included a Web site for medical records.
According to the recent GAO report, the HealtheVet program, as the modernized recordkeeping program for health claims is called, is so far behind that it won’t be ready until 2018, six years later than planned.
By any standards, it is simply absurd that it would take 10 years to launch such a database, especially when nearly $600 million has already been spent on HealtheVet, and the VA estimates it will spend another $11 billion before the database is complete.
Given that the U.S. military compiles so much data on each individual who joins the armed services, it’s perplexing that the VA does not have a standardized information system to track veterans’ needs. And if the explanation is that the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are separate entities, that is a poor excuse for a failure to communicate.
Problems unique to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans make it worse. Despite a spike in the need for mental-health care, the only reform the VA has added is a suicide hot line, which received more than 55,000 calls in its first year. Also disturbing: National Guard members and Reservists sent to Iraq and Afghanistan are disproportionately represented in suicides by returning veterans.
Overall, the number of cases of depression and mental illness is higher among recent veterans who, because of the types of weapons used by insurgents, suffer more brain injuries and trauma. Plus, medical advancements are allowing more soldiers to survive their injuries, requiring more long-term health care.
The challenges the VA faces are monumental, but that does not mean they cannot be addressed. Whether it is because Americans are focused on the economy and not the war, or because the nation is in the waning months of a lame-duck presidency, the forces behind veterans-care reform have lost their way.
Our former service members need help, and they need it now, not in six or even four months. That means putting database creation on a fast track, and hiring and training thousands of new employees to process claims.
The politicians court veterans in this election year; why not show their concern by ending the backlog?