Veterans’ advocates and lawmakers called Thursday for an "evolution" in the way the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) handles disability claims amid reports of often multi-year delays for veterans seeking benefits.
The event, co-hosted by the Weekly Standard and Concerned Veterans for America, highlighted proposals for reforming the VA’s administration of veteran benefits.
About 600,000 of the 900,000 pending disability claims for veterans are backlogged, meaning vets have been waiting more than 125 days to receive benefits. That figure represents a significant increase since 2003, when 50,000 claims were backlogged, said Anthony Principi, former secretary of the VA.
The problem is not a new one, Principi said. About 80 percent of the backlogged claims originate from before 9/11.
"[Albert] Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," he said. "If we continue business as usual, nothing the VA does will solve the problem."
Sen. Richard Burr (R, N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the lack of accountability at the VA stems from a failure to acknowledge whom they serve. The VA decided about 412,000 less claims in the last four years than what it initially projected, he said.
"This is not a shot at one agency," Burr said. "It’s a shot at the fact that people who process these claims don’t see the human face behind the piece of paper."
The lives behind the paperwork are often veterans like Mike Montgomery, said Mark Flatten, a reporter at the Washington Examiner who investigates VA issues.
Montgomery, who served as a Marine in Vietnam, submitted a disability claim after he began to suffer from a severe nervous system condition associated with Agent Orange, an herbicide sprayed on trees and vegetation during the war. After he waited to receive the benefits, the VA told Montgomery that they lost his paperwork and that he would have to file the claim again, Flatten said.
"It’s not important that there are a million claims out there that are unresolved," he said. "It’s important to me that there’s one guy whose life is on hold and that that one case is repeated a million times."
The VA has pledged to resolve every claim older than two years by 2015, but that will require numerous reforms, said participants at the event.
They suggested immediately transferring electronic medical records from the Defense Department to the VA when a servicemember leaves active duty and establishing better communication between administrators in Washington and front-line employees at regional offices across the country.
Principi said the expansion of benefits should also be scrutinized.
Many veterans 80 years or older are filing their first claims for disabilities that prevent them from working or for diseases such as diabetes that can be attributed to old age rather than military service, he said.
"If any of those diseases contribute to [a veteran’s] death at any age, their widow will get the same compensation of a young widow whose spouse died in Afghanistan last week," he said.
Instituting reforms will also require the public to recognize the problem and press lawmakers for action as veterans continue to return from Afghanistan, said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"I’m worried that we’ll give each other nice emotional high fives and say, ‘We did it; we brought them home,’ without knowing that there are millions of veterans at home waiting for their benefits," he said.