Our Voice: VA's shameful backlog hinders veterans with disabilities

February 11, 2014 

We owe our veterans for our freedom. They put their lives on the line for us. Some pay for that freedom with their lives, and others come home with injuries they will carry for a lifetime.

And, for that, we owe them more than we can ever repay.

We must do better for our veterans.

And a good place to start is to improve how we help those who need it most: those with disability claims. Coming back from Afghanistan with a missing limb unfortunately seems too commonplace.

Reports show there has been some improvement in caring for these disabled vets, with the Department of Veterans Affairs cutting its backlog by 37 percent in a 10-month span last year. But there is still a long way to go, with recent reports critical of the VA's process, stating that it lacks the necessary accountability and transparency.

The VA has a goal to eliminate the backlog of disability claims by 2015. But with a backlog which stays steady at about 400,000 cases, that seems like a lofty goal.

But under intense pressure to improve the system, the VA is focused on meeting the deadline, not on quality work. And veterans are suffering further for it.

According to a recent report, the emphasis has been placed on quantity of claims processed, not accuracy. Mistakes made when the goal is to rush through claims compounds the issue.

On average, an appeal of a decision can take up to four years to resolve. In addition to the 400,000 claims in backlog, another 265,000 are in the appeals process. That's 665,000 veterans in limbo.

And that's no way to treat our heroes.

The report, from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, recommends standardized forms for VA claims and an electronic database of health records for veterans operated by the VA and the Department of Defense.

For its part, the VA said it's already working on the concerns raised in the report and is "executing an aggressive plan to fix this decades-old problem and end the backlog in 2015." Again, it seems the focus is on the race to a goal, not the path it takes to get there.

We have been critical of the VA's handling of veterans health matters in the past, and we understand the agency is under intense pressure. But the organization needs to do what it takes to end the wait for care for veterans while handling those claims with due care.

We need to make the process simpler, and the access and information more user-friendly for our veterans. How awful it must feel to come back to a country you gave so much for, only to be left in limbo by a system that was created to care for you.

The VA can and should do better for our veterans. Our nation's resources are vast, and there must be some untapped resources that could help the process along, whether that's customer service training, patient advocacy and navigation, or developing electronic databases and websites that streamline records and provide access to information for veterans.

We owe them everything.

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