About seven years ago, The American Legion Magazine published a survey form asking veterans to submit information about the treatment they were receiving from VA medical centers and clinics around the country. At the time, more than 300,000 VA patients were waiting 30 days or longer for doctor appointments in understaffed, underfunded facilities nationwide. The survey asked questions about waiting times, and also offered a place to write freely about other VA health-care concerns worth sharing. What an education that was. Nearly 5,000 VA patients responded to the survey, which illuminated much more than delayed appointments. The surveys revealed inconsistent treatment programs for female veterans, ridiculously low mileage reimbursements for rural veterans forced to travel hundreds of miles to see VA doctors, and spotty help for veterans with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The information from that study has guided Legion testimony in Congress, legislative priorities and hundreds of staff site visits at VA health-care facilities. Most importantly, it has led to positive changes.
The survey was called “I Am Not a Number.” And it gave birth to the “System Worth Saving” report, which now delivers to Congress the Legion’s highly respected annual assessment of VA health-care facilities nationwide. When Congress needs to know what veterans think about VA health care, The American Legion is the expert source thanks to the “System Worth Saving” program. There is nothing else like it.
This year, that same model is being applied to tackle another major VA issue: benefits administration and general performance of regional offices. At our national convention in August, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki vowed to bring the backlog of unresolved VA claims decisions under control by 2012. The problem has haunted VA since the Eisenhower administration, only it’s worse now, with approximately 1 million veterans awaiting decisions that could change their lives forever.
Secretary Shinseki needs our help on this one. The Legion is now conducting a series of VA Regional Office visits in a program we call ROAR – Regional Office Action Review. Like the “System Worth Saving” program, Legion experts and local veterans meet with VA Regional Office administrators and employees to see what they are doing to reduce the backlog, how they are staffed, and how new technology is being used to improve the process.
Of course, we also need to get the stakeholder side of this story. That is why I strongly urge you to go to The American Legion website and fill out a ROAR survey (www.legion.org/roar) to share your thoughts about your regional office. You will be asked a few simple questions about the time it has taken for your VA claim to be resolved, if the appeal process works, if you are satisfied and how you were treated. The confidential survey also provides an area to write freely about your VA experience. We are always on the lookout for problems, but also want to learn about success stories that can be shared with others across the country. No one has a greater stake in this than we do. Let’s get online, fill out a survey, and help the secretary fulfill his challenge to finally break the backlog.