Editorial Column: Beyond the Yellow Ribbon – Ending Homelessness for Our Veterans

End Homeless

January 7, 2009 – One of the most tragic things about America’s homelessness population is the prevalence of veterans. Service men and women make up a quarter of our nation’s homeless.

This is unacceptable. Frustrating. Sickening. We are a country quick to enlist young men and women who are willing to serve and fight for their country, yet we turn our backs on them, failing to provide proper care after they have bravely served.

Here’s how:

Following a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and the macho-mentality of military service, adjusting to civilian life can be tough. Really tough. A returning vet may not recognize they are being impacted by PTSD or a brain injury until something changes dramatically in their life. Whether it’s a personal realtionship fallout, trouble at work, depression, or an emerging substance abuse issue, a veteran will often not realize they need help until they reach a very low point.

This is when they file a disability claim with the VA. But see, this is also where the problem starts.

Veterans Affairs operates at a snail’s pace. It takes between six months and two years for a returning war vet to learn if they qualify for disability benefits. If they wish to appeal the decision, they must wait an average of four-and-a-half years for a decision, according to a recent Miller-McCune article. The backlog of unanswered VA disability claims has grown from 325,000 to more than 600,000 since the start of the Iraq war. And In the six months ending March 31, 2008, a total of 1,467 veterans died waiting to learn if their disability claim would be approved.

If you think shocking and frustrating to read, imagine being caught up in the backlog of claims. The article tells the story of 25 year-old James Eggemeyer (pictured at right), who suffered both physical and mental injuries while serving in Iraq. After filing a disability claim, his condition quickly deteriorated. At the time of the interview, he was homeless, living out of his truck, and suicidal. He described his attempts to get an answer from the VA:

    “A month ago, I called the little 1-800 number for the claims hotline,” he said. “They said that I was at the rating board; that they had all the information and all the medical evidence that we need to proceed with my case. They said: ‘Now we’re just waiting for a rater to rate it. You should have your decision in no time.’

    “Well, about a week after that, I called them again and said: ‘What’s the process? Have I been rated yet?’ And they said: ‘Well, no. You’re missing these three forms. They’re missing from your file. You need to send them in for your file in order for them to be rated.’ So I went in to see the veterans service officer (Reese), and he helped me get the paperwork they said I was missing, and we faxed it over to them.

    “Three days later, I called them and they said they had received it, and I was back at the rating board. And they had everything they needed, and I would be rated, and I would get my back pay for the months that I hadn’t been rated and get my disability established. Well, I called them up yesterday, and it’s back at the developmental stages, and I’m not even at the rating board yet, and they told me they need to gather more medical information.”

    At that point, Reese [a veteran’s service representative] called all the claims adjudicators he knew at the rating board in St. Petersburg. He reminded them of what they already knew from the forms he had faxed and mailed them multiple times: Spc. James Eggemeyer had served his country in Iraq and had sustained both physical and mental injuries in the field of battle; he was now homeless and suicidal.

Luckily, Eggemeyer received his first disability check before he harmed himself. Many others have not been so lucky.

Sadly, many other veterans- unable to work and pay rent- have ended up on the streets while waiting for their disability claim decision from the VA. This begs the question: can the VA claims process be changed to reduce veteran homelessness among Iraq and Afghanistan vets?

Many scholars argue that the answer is yes and that the solution is simple. Instead of placing the burden of proof on veterans to prove they were injured in the line of duty, they advocate that the process be changed so that veterans quickly receive compensation to prevent further damage (such as homelessness). According to the article:

    In her exhaustive study of the long-term costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Linda Bilmes, who teaches management, budgeting and public finance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, notes that almost all veterans tell the truth in their disability claims, with the VA ultimately approving nearly 90 percent of them. Given that reality, Bilmes suggests scrapping the lengthy process described above and replacing it with “something closer to the way the IRS deals with tax returns.”

    A revamped “Veterans Benefits Administra tion,” she writes, “could simply approve all veterans’ claims as they are filed – at least to a certain minimum level – and then audit a sample of them to weed out and deter fraudulent claims. … Claims specialists could then be redeployed to assist veterans in making claims. This startlingly easy switch would ensure that the U.S. no longer leaves disabled veterans to fend for themselves.”

    The cost of easing the readjustment process for veterans would be relatively small, about $500 million a year, or about 2 percent of what Congress appropriated last year for the war in Iraq. Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand all use similar systems to compensate their injured veterans. Yet very little has been done to push this plan toward implementation. No member of Congress has sponsored legislation that would enact this solution.

From a cost-benefit perspective, Bilmes’ solution makes perfect sense. We know that the current VA claims process is far too slow. We know that returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are at risk becoming homeless unless they quickly receive treatment and services. And we know that preventing homelessness is much less expensive and more desirable for all involved individuals than operating shelters and supportive services.

But is it possible to move beyond the yellow ribbon, cut through all the bureaucratic red tape, and provide real support for our troops?

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