Let’s reverse the backlog, not just slow it

The Department of Veterans Affairs faces extraordinary challenges as the second decade of the 21st century unfolds. There’s a new GI Bill to manage. Employment and business opportunities for veterans are hard to stimulate in a slowly recovering economy. Access to affordable health care, hope for the homeless and proper burial for those who honorably served our nation are costly and unwieldy to provide, even for the second-largest arm of the federal government.The fastest-swelling elephant in the kitchen, however, is the backlog of undecided VA benefits claims. The speed, efficiency and accuracy of VA’s outdated, paper-based claims-adjudication process influences almost every other aspect of the system. A claims decision determines a veteran’s access to VA health care. A claims decision can relieve a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder from the vicious cycle of substance abuse and family instability. A claims decision can help a veteran entrepreneur get a federal contract or leave a job that is slowly making a service-connected disability worse.That is why VA’s current situation – somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million undecided claims – cannot be tolerated anymore. The White House has recommended hiring 4,000 new VA claims processors in fiscal year 2011, simply to prevent the problem from getting a lot worse. That is not good enough. We need to reverse the backlog.Politicians on both sides of the aisle have promised to make VA’s antiquated claims-adjudication process a high priority, as they have since the Eisenhower administration. And yet here we are, slipping down the slope of VA’s inability to keep up with a claims curve that grew by 75 percent between 2000 and 2009. VA officials themselves say the average veteran’s wait for a benefits decision can be expected to increase to 190 days, up from 158, by early 2011. What a disgrace.The American Legion must continually remind federal officials that proper care for veterans is a delayed cost of war. The same U.S. government that prepares and sends Americans to battle, then passes and administers laws providing benefits after discharge, cannot simply drag its feet and try to outlast the obligation. Too many veterans believe the government they swore to protect now just wants them to die, along with their unresolved claims.VA’s adjudication process is bogged down in part because work is graded not by satisfactory completion of a case but by the successful transfer of a file from one desk to another. This work-credit system needs to be overhauled. In an era when most Americans can file their income taxes or apply for college aid online within an hour, technological solutions that ease the process without compromising quality are quite possible. Social Security benefits are most often in the hands of those who need them within a month of filing. We know VA is working on this, but delivery of a new system cannot just be a high priority year after year. It needs to be a reality now. A new generation of service-disabled Americans is pouring into VA looking for help. And yes, veterans of past wars are still here, too, waiting and wondering about their claims. We have waited too long.