Veterans Administration Health Care – Creaking Under the Strain
“This is disgraceful!” thundered Representative Bob Filner, a Democrat representing California’s 51st district, immediately before a hearing on the tremendous delays American veterans face in receiving health care through the VA system. “This is an insult to our veterans. And you guys just recycle old programs and put new names on them!”
The VA health care system has never been a model of user-friendly efficiency. But the current backlog problems are getting insane, even by federal bureaucratic standards.
Last month, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 870,000 disability cases pending. Of those, two out of three had been pending more than 125 days. The percentage of cases taking longer than 125 days to resolve had actually increased over the previous year. In some offices, such as Oakland, California, the average claims resolution time drags on for a year.
The VA’s stated goal is to resolve all disability cases within 125 days.
Jim Strickland, the manager of a website called VAWatch.org, isn’t very impressed.
“A delay to process a claim in 125 days or less is a system failure,” he wrote on his site. “No other business on the planet would be applauding itself to set a goal of only 60% of it’s [sic] work to be a failure.”
It’s not going to be easy.
As the military draws down in strength over the coming years, hundreds of thousands of servicemembers are going to transition from the military health care system to the VA. Meanwhile, the aging baby-boomers of the Viet Nam generation are now entering their retirement years, detaching from their employer plans and entering their peak years of health care consumption.
The result is a “perfect storm” that threatens to swamp the ability of Veterans Affairs officials to process claims.
Indeed, the storm is already upon us: Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, notified Congress that there had been a huge 48 percent surge in applications at the VA over the last three years. The VA has barely been able to tread water, despite bringing new computer systems online to speed claims.
What’s behind the increase? Three factors:
A decision made two years ago to expand benefits to Viet Nam veterans who may have been affected by exposure to Agent Orange. This had a particularly profound effect on the VA’s claims processing capacity, because documenting these 40 year old claims – some 230,000 of them — was so difficult. A substantial number of VA administrators had to be assigned to process these cases – at the expense of newer claims. The VA states that it is nearing the end of processing those claims.
Second, a weak economy is driving some people to file claims for benefits who might otherwise have just toughed it out. A mild hearing loss due to military service is not devastating if you have secure employment. If you’re unemployed, it becomes tempting to file that claim for 10 to 30 percent disability. And you have time on your hands to file a claim (you’re gonna need it!).
Third, increased awareness of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, combined with aggressive post-deployment screening, increased the number of referrals to the VA system from Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans. While U.S. direct involvement in the Iraq War has come to an end, these veterans are now getting discharged and coming to VA offices in the tens of thousands for treatment of physical and psychological problems.
What has your experience with the VA been like in the last few years? Let us know in the comments below.