Veterans Administration: Delay, deny, wait ’til I die

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.

The V.A. logo, courtesy of the V.A. e-benefits website.
The V.A. logo, courtesy of the V.A. e-benefits website.

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.”

The author's “selfie” taken at the V.A. Medical Center when he was diagnosed with pneumonia in the summer of 2009.
The author’s “selfie” taken at the V.A. Medical Center when he was diagnosed with pneumonia in the summer of 2009.

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.

5 thoughts on “Veterans Administration: Delay, deny, wait ’til I die

  • July 26, 2013 at 1:44 AM

    The photo give Veterans the impression that they will have a long wait for health care, which is not true. We are concerned that Veterans who need health care will not come here due to negative stories about wait times that have nothing to do with health care.


  • July 25, 2013 at 7:03 PM

    This story confuses two VA services – story refers to VA benefits claims, which is managed by the Veterans Benefits Administration, but shows a photo of the medical center, which is under the Veterans Health Administration. The medical center only provides health care, we do not process benefit claims. The photo of the medical center should not be attached to the story. The majority of VA San Diego Healthcare System patients are seen within two weeks from their desired date. We encourage any Veterans with health care concerns to contact our Patient Advocate Office to get assistance.
    Cindy Butler
    Public Affairs, VA San Diego Healthcare System

    • July 25, 2013 at 8:15 PM

      While I agree that these are two different V.A. services, both are still a part of the Veterans Administration and the V.A. hospital is the major symbol of the V.A. wherever veterans may be living. Not just veterans, most people. I would bet if you polled most San Diagans and asked, “where is the V.A. located,” most would point to that hospital. They have no knowledge of the other clinics or the regional office in Mission Valley.

      The medical center is far more recognizable, as I’m sure they all are around the country. That’s why I chose that photo; that and because it is where I go for much of my health care. I also go to the Mission Valley clinic at the regional office.

      The health care I get at the V.A.M.C. in La Jolla is superb. I wouldn’t trade it for any other health care system in the area and I’ve been covered in the past by three other health care systems through private insurance. I would not be alive if not for the great care I receive from the professionals at the V.A.M.C. in La Jolla.

      But, as I’ve often said for years: the health care itself is the best, it’s the bureaucracy that will kill you.

      Thanks for your comment Cindy and thank you for choosing to serve the veterans of the San Diego/Imperial County area.

  • July 25, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    How does a Country HONOR It’s Fallen, by Their Own ‘Sacrifice’ in Taking Care of the Brothers and Sisters They Served With!!
    The Whole Country Served, Not Just The Many Caring Groups, with handfuls of members and volunteers, who have to fight for funding when successful and not getting grants, Within!!

    “If military action is worth our troops’ blood, it should be worth our treasure, too — not just in the abstract, but in the form of a specific ante by every American.” -Andrew Rosenthal 10 Feb. 2013

    RM: “We got a huge round of tax cuts in this country a few weeks before9/11. Once 9/11 happened and we invaded Afghanistan, we kept the tax cuts anyway.
    How did we think we were going to pay for that war? Did we think it was free?
    Then, when we started a second simultaneous war in another country, we gave ourselves a second huge round of tax cuts. After that second war started. The wars, I guess, we thought would be free, don`t worry about it, civilians. Go about your business.” 23 May 2013

    “Why in 2009 were we still using paper?” VA Assistant Secretary Tommy Sowers “When we came in, there was no plan to change that; we’ve been operating on a six month wait for over a decade.” 27 March 2013


    Prior too this present Executive and Veterans Administrations and just touching on the problems:

    Army Times Oct. 16, 2008 – VA claims found in piles to be shredded

    CNN iReport October 25, 2008 – House Vets’ Committee To Probe VA Shredder Scandal

    Tampa Bay Times Oct 27, 2008 – Hundreds of VA documents improperly shredded, review finds {Tampa Bay Times search page and series of articles}

    CBS News February 11, 2009 – Veterans’ Claims Found in Shredder Bins

    And more disturbing in relation to even before and through the early years of the Afghanistan, quickly abandoned missions of, and Iraq occupations, this:

    ProPublica and The Seattle Times Nov. 9, 2012 – Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefit Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans
    “DeLara’s case is part of a much larger problem that has plagued the U.S. military since the 1990 Gulf War: a failure to create and maintain the types of field records that have documented American conflicts since the Revolutionary War.”

    Add in the issues of finally recognizing in War Theater and more Veterans, by this Veterans Administration and the Executive Administrations Cabinet, what the Country choose to ignore from our previous decades and wars of: The devastating effects on Test Vets and from PTS, Agent Orange, Homelessness, more recent the Desert Storm troops Gulf War Illnesses, Gulf War Exposures with the very recent affects from In-Theater Burn Pits and oh so so much more! Tens of Thousands of Veterans’ that have been long ignored and maligned by previous VA’s and the whole Country and through their representatives!

    These present wars have yet to be paid for! Rubber stamping and rapid deficits rising started before 9/11 and continued with same for the wars. But especially in the early some six years of extremely little being added to the Veterans Administration budgets by those Congresses, and since obstructed by same war rubber stampers, as to the long term results of War, DeJa-Vu all over again.

    “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” – Abraham Lincoln

    USN All Shore ’67-’71 GMG3 Vietnam In Country ’70-’71—-

    • August 19, 2013 at 3:00 AM

      I’m 30% disabled because of my left elbow being shattered and replaced in the “summer of 69” and when I went back to my VA for additional compensation because hearing loss and PTSD I was denied – although VA gave me a hearing aid….Guess I didn’t fit the mold for additional compensation because I earned an Undergrad and Masters degree and am employed. Not a very nice way to treat someone ho gave their country 21 year of their life to protect those who have the power to say NO!

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