If you’re a veteran, especially an Iraq and Afghan war vet, you know exactly what that headline means.
The backlog at the Veterans Administration rarely makes the news, nor does this startling fact: 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Many of those are veterans that have been waiting as long as two years (or longer) for their claims to be completed. And then if you need to appeal it the wait starts all over again.
The average wait for a claim to be adjudicated varies from claims office to claims office, but the St. Paul, MN office has the “fastest” turnaround: 276 days. Yeah, do the math and that’s about nine months.
The funny thing is, if any of this could be humorous, no one in the government thinks hiring more workers would help alleviate the problem. Not the Secretary of the V.A. General Shinseki, not Congress and not the president. The problem they say is that the system for filing and storing the records is not digitized and the delay is due to the V.A. trying to move all the paper into digital records.
And that is why “they” (the members of the V.A. management) say the delays have increased during the Obama Administration. In a Power Point presentation the V.A. created to help explain the problem, officials had a slide that said paper was the enemy.
My knowledge of this came May 2nd from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. As he so often does with the issues, Stewart put the problem into a perspective anyone can understand.
According to Stewart’s interpretation, Paper has been turned into an enemy combatant that can now be held indefinitely in a paper Gitmo. Veterans advocate Eric Greitens is the guest.
Adding to the backlog is the V.A. and the Pentagon use two different electronic systems for their medical records and the two systems are not compatible. Another point Stewart and his team so humorously revealed to everyone. The Pentagon medical program is called “Alta” and the V.A. program “Vista.” The irony is just too rich.
Of course, if you were not familiar with computers or the Interwebs you wouldn’t understand the joke. Alta Vista is a once popular Internet search engine.
According to the V.A., the digital records system used by the V.A. is different from the one used by the Pentagon for active duty personnel and trying to get those two programs to work together is impossible.
It just seems logical to the average observer that if the government hired a few hundred people to handle the claims the backlog would cease.
Except that in 2007 Congress began to increase funding to the V.A. and in turn the administration began hiring more employees to handle the claims. That doesn’t seem to have done much to remedy the problem because the delays have increased since then.
According to one employee interviewed for CBS’s 60 Minutes, the V.A. has a quota system for completing claims forms: the more claims the V.A. employee completes in a given period, the more points towards a bonus the employee receives.
It doesn’t matter to the V.A. management if the claim is approved or denied, just that it is completed. As a result, according to the V.A. Inspector General, at least 25 percent of the claims that are completed have errors, that then require the veteran to appeal the decision to correct the errors because those errors cost the veterans ether in compensation or health care. Or both for that matter.
For the average veteran waiting to have his or her claim completed correctly, the delays and errors can be devastating. If the vet can’t work and doesn’t have support around him (or her), like family and friends, the vet falls through the cracks and becomes homeless at the very least — or dead.
“Delay, deny, hope that I die.”
My particular claim, first applied for in September 2011, is now in its 23rd month of processing. It was first completed and approved within 12 months, which is fast compared to claims from other parts of the country, but there was an error in it. It took two months of relentless calling to finally bring the error to the V.A.’s attention so now the appeal is in the system.
Before that it took a month to figure out just what the V.A. did and what the hell they were referring to with their claim information. Once that was determined I began calling the V.A. every day, at different times in the day, hoping to get through to the queue to wait on hold.
Most of the time the caller gets the message that the V.A. phone system has too many calls waiting to add anymore and is instructed to hang up and try again. And don’t worry, if you don’t hang up fast enough the V.A. phone system will disconnect the call. It doesn’t take their phone system very long to do that.
Here’s a tip to all my fellow vets: when you do get through and you’re on hold — or you get lucky and are offered the convenience of a call-back — don’t waste the opportunity yelling and screaming at the person on the other end of the phone. Know what it is you are calling about; have it written down so you can remain focused on your problem, not their questions. Resist the urge to go off on tangents that have nothing to do with your claim.
Also, resist the urge to raise your voice and get angry. Yeah, sometimes it seems like the person on the other end of the phone isn’t listening to what we are saying, but that is why you have your questions and concerns written down — so you can refocus on the issue at hand.
More importantly, you want the focus of the other person on the issue at hand.
If you don’t have an e-benefit account, do that. Right now it won’t help speed up your claim process, and quite frankly the information provided isn’t always up to date, but it will give you information and can alert you to any errors that might otherwise be missed for weeks or months — errors that slow up your claims process.
The newest feature on the e-benefit site: you can now upload documents in support of your claim so when the V.A. claims adjuster says they didn’t see any documentation of your temporary duty deployment to Bumfucked, Afghanistan, you can upload any number of documents that will prove you were there.
E-Benefit may not speed up your claims process, but it might help eliminate some errors. Plus it will show you the estimated date of completion for your claim. You almost have to laugh at that. With just a few keystrokes the V.A. can estimate how many months it will take to finish your claim — but it takes them anywhere from nine to 30 months to complete that same claim.
Yep, if and when you do get through to a live person at the V.A. you just want to scream as long and as loud as you can. Speaking from experience, it does nothing to encourage the flow of your claim. In fact, the person you are speaking with on the phone doesn’t even handle claims, they just take care of customer service functions. They pass your information on to the people who do handle the claims.
Go ahead and scream, it just makes your head spin. Get it out now before you get on the phone with the V.A.
One day I was livid over a different situation, threatening to go to the V.A. Medical Center here in San Diego, CA and beat a bureaucrat into bloody hell, which probably seemed kind of humorous to onlookers because I was about five weeks past quadruple bypass surgery, a little wobbly and definitely in no shape for any physical confrontation. Hell, I was barely walking an hour a day.
Anyway, one of my good buddies calmly talked me down from that by first offering to drive me to the V.A. and hold the guy while I pummeled him. And you know, this friend, who is also a vet, would have done so had I insisted. But just listening to my buddy Ray calmly offering to help me be crazy sounded so crazy, my thought was, “Is Ray crazy?”
Actually, Ray is a little crazy, but that’s beside the point. If Ray sounded crazy to me, how did I sound to him — and the 10 to 15 other people who witnessed my meltdown?
The point is: don’t be just another crazy vet screaming on the phone.
I’d still like to wring that guy’s neck though. His screw-up cost me over a thousand dollars in state disability. But, I’ve been to the V.A.M.C. at least 100 times since then, walking past this knucklehead’s office every time and really, would getting arrested fix any wrongs? Ray would probably post bail and pick me up from the pokey. But it still wouldn’t fix anything. Live and let live and let it go.
So yeah, it’s frustrating, especially when we see that 22 vets commit suicide every day, many of them because they are in this black hole waiting for years to get their claims completed correctly, desperately trying to survive.
It’s impossible for the average person to understand the depth of depression someone falls into when a once vital, active human being is forced to depend on others. Then, the vet can’t even count on the government to do their part and provide the necessities promised to them as part of their contract to serve this country. The millions of vets that are going through, or have gone through this process, understand why a man or woman who once commanded others in a war zone feels so helpless that ending their life seems like the only viable option.
Life goes on and the plight of a million veterans waiting for their claims to be completed just isn’t at the forefront of the public’s attention. Hell, most people don’t even think about the troops that are still serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are other things to follow in the news.
Like the sequestration. I haven’t even figured that into any of this. But most Americans don’t even pay attention to that, even though it affects just about all of us, some in little ways others in extreme ways.
While working on this, NBC’s Today Show was on and the headline news was “Royal Baby Watch” and Comic-Con, which was in its last day out here in San Diego.
Comic-Con is a big event, with over 100,000 attendees crowding San Diego’s Convention Center. If you’re going to have a convention, the San Diego Convention Center is the place to hold it because it is right on San Diego Bay. It’s a spectacular setting.
This particular convention brings the fans of everything (it seems) into close proximity with the people that create and act in all the geeky, nerdy things we see on TV, at the movies, in comic books and graphic novels, video games and Dungeons and Dragons. Lucy Lawless was a star attraction at Comic-Con for a few years when she was Xena, the Warrior Princess. Lou Ferrigno is there every year because he was the Hulk on TV.
Hugh Jackman has always been a big hit when he attends — he plays Wolverine in the X-Men series of movies. Anyway, Comic-Con is a big deal and maybe next year I will attend and write about it here.
On to the Royal Baby Watch: aren’t we all glad that’s finally over? It’s a boy so there’s another potential king in the House of Windsor.
All right, that’s important to someone, but in the four days we were all gushing over the little prince and what Jennifer Lawrence was wearing to Comic-Con (according to HuffPo, Lawrence “flashed major skin.” She didn’t. She wore a crop top that exposed a bit of her midriff.), a million vets were waiting for their claims to be finished. Yeah, there’s a backlog of a million claims.
Also in the span of Comic-Con, nearly 100 veterans committed suicide.
We don’t need to stop the world until this gets fixed, that’s crazy, but think of the veterans in your life. It’s something you can also focus on for a few minutes a week when you contact your congressional representatives and ask them why vets have to wait years to get their claims completed.
Don’t let them off the hook with some partisan bullshit about it being the fault of the other guy’s political party. It started with one party in power and continues while the other party is in charge.
The government can fix this problem. Our veterans deserve better than what they’re getting now.
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative college newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment issues, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the business of government and business was so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that reality.