Organizations like The American Legion are critical in helping Congress provide oversight over the Department of Veterans Affairs – a point made very clear by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Speaking at The American Legion Commander's Call today during the organization's 53rd annual Washington Conference, Sanders said veterans service organizations provide an invaluable service for his committee.
"You know, and the other veterans service organizations know – those who work with the VA every single day – you know what the problems are," Sanders said. "Our job is to open the door for you to come in, engage in serious discussions with us and make the changes we need to make. And we look forward to working with you in that regard. I can tell you that the committee has plans for an aggressive agenda this session."
That includes facing a VA claims backlog surpassing 900,000.
"The good news is that for the last three years, VA has processed more than 1 million claims a year," Sanders said. "The problem is that more claims are coming in. This year, I understand, there will about 1.2 million claims coming in and about a million being processed. You're adding 200,000 to the backlog. VA efforts have been outpaced by new claims filings in each of the last three years, further compounding the backlog.
"Whatever the reason is, I remain deeply troubled by the growth and persistence of the claims backlog. I refuse to accept the status quo. We will work with you. We will work with VA to make sure that our system significantly improves."
For that to happen, Sanders wants to see a better cooperation between the Department of Defense and VA in the area of sharing medical records.
"For many years there has been this mentality that says, ‘If you're in the military, here you are, and when you're a veteran, here you are,'" he said. "But you know what? You are one human being. There has to be a coming together of the DoD and the VA when it comes to medical records."
But Sanders also had high praise for the medical care that VA provides to the nation's veterans.
"The VA does a lot of stuff and does it very well," Sanders said. "One of the reasons the VA does things well is the extraordinary, dedicated staff that they have working with them in hospitals and clinics all over this country. The VA health-care system currently boasts the highest patient satisfaction rating of any health-care system in America."
Sanders also touched on the job market facing servicemembers when they transition back into the civilian workforce.
"Real unemployment is not 7.8 percent," he said. "If you include those people who have given up looking for work (and) those people working 20 hours a week when they want to work 40 hours a week, real unemployment is closer to 14 percent. Now you have men and women coming home from Iraq, coming home from Afghanistan – the ones who gave up their jobs – and they're coming back to 14 percent employment.
"If you're not working, not earning an income, it impacts your self worth, your marriage, your relationship with your kids, your mental health and everything else. So making sure that every veteran in this country who wants to work is able to get a decent-paying job is something that you've got to (do)."