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Helping vets

November 19, 2012 12:11 am

VETERANS DAY 2012 is past, but concern for "those who have borne the battle" should not be relegated to a single day. In that regard, the Department of Veterans Affairs has some explaining to do.

The VA claims backlog is infamous. Nearly 900,000 pending disability-benefit claims, 65 percent of which have been in limbo for more than 125 days, are evidence that the agency is doing a poor job of serving former military members and their dependents.

Behind each of those claims is a person--someone who is suffering from a traumatic injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other service-related condition; someone whose life may be on hold while the VA snow pile refuses to melt. Not only may that person be waiting for monetary compensation, he or she is also standing in line for that all-important "service-connected disability" designation, which brings with it benefits such as treatment in a VA hospital and preference in federal hiring. How long is too long for them to wait?

To be fair, the VA is facing an increasing number of claims as the war in Afghanistan winds down, and those claims are often complex. The average post-World War II disability-compensation claim included three conditions; today, that's more likely to be 5.5. And many disorders are harder to pin down: traumatic brain injury, for example, or PTSD as opposed to knee injuries or shrapnel wounds. But the failure of the VA to upgrade its computers and a poor rate of accuracy on initial claims (both contributors to the backlog) are fixable problems.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki vows that help is on the way, citing increased hiring and more training as remediations. But his goal--to clear the backlog by 2015 and establish an average wait time of 125 days for first-time claims, plus a 98 percent accuracy rate, seems like a dieter's dream, more wishful thinking than reality.

Here's another idea: Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson and former VA Chief of Staff Thomas Bowman, writing in The Washington Post, suggest that the VA speed things up by making a presumption of disability. For example, if a vet claims compensation for five conditions, and it's clear that at least one of them was service-related, grant him a temporary rating of, say, 30-percent disability until the rest can be adjudicated. This would provide some benefits, at least. They also suggest that the VA operate like the IRS--presume claims are correct, just as the tax man "grants" that those 1040s have been filled out correctly. (Audits to follow.)

The VA has never been known as a swift and efficient, much less creative, operation, but America's veterans deserve better than they're getting. On Veterans Day, President Obama said, "[N]o one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job, or a roof over their head, or the care they have earned when they come home." Nor should they have to wait for what seems like forever for benefits prescribed by law.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.