Imagine that you’re a concert pianist. Imagine that you’ve just fallen down a whole flight of stairs, broken both arms, and won’t be able to perform for at least six months. But you’re also smart-you have private disability insurance. You file a claim, your insurance company checks with your doctor, processes the paper work, and starts sending a monthly check, usually within thirty days, and continues to pay until you’re back playing professionally. That’s the way disability insurance is supposed to work. If there are delays and you can’t pay the mortgage or buy groceries, your insurance company will be in a world of trouble with the state insurance commissioner and has legal exposure. The same smooth claims process, on the whole, works in the case of life insurance, car insurance, or your homeowners insurance.
Now imagine instead you’re a veteran who can’t work due to injuries, illness, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan, or here at home, for that matter. The government has promised you disability benefits if you are injured during your service; but for you, the timely payment of disability or death benefits is a fiction. You’re more likely to be evicted, wandering the streets homeless and hungry, or even die before you receive your first check. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, calls the delays in the payment of rightful benefits to veterans a “national embarrassment.”
Every day thousands of veterans join the ranks of the homeless after they leave military service because the federal government can’t manage to get its act together, despite throwing virtually unlimited dollars at the problem. Here are a few disturbing facts:
- Over 794,000 veterans’ disability claims are pending.
- Over 244,000 disability claims have been pending over a year, an increase from 11,000 only four years earlier.
- The average wait time for a disability decision is 332 days nationwide. In some metropolitan areas the average is well over 1 1/2 years.
- The average wait time for a funeral subsidy has reached 207 days.
- Over 50,000 veterans’ survivors are waiting an average of 229 days to hear about their “widow’s pension.”
- Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day.
Despite heightened scrutiny by both Congress and the media, the Veterans Administration (VA) is going in the wrong direction when it comes to processing disability claims. The current wait to process a disability claim is 50 percent longer than just a year ago and 20 times worse than four years ago. Much worse, those who appeal a denied claim must wait on average 3¬Ω years for an answer.
Delays have increased despite a new $300 million computer system and 3,300 claims processors hired since 2010 – 765 of them for new positions. The VA has pledged to eliminate the claims backlog by 2015, but VA data shows the number of veterans waiting for a disability decision is growing while thousands more seek a pension or GI Bill education benefits. At the current rate, for example, in San Diego, the city with the worst combination of backlog and clearance rates, it would take the VA three years to resolve every pending disability claim, if not a single additional claim were filed.
That scenario won’t occur. In 2011, 1.3 million veterans filed claims for benefits, the result of a combination of troops returning from the Middle East and Afghanistan and aging Vietnam veterans, many with new claims based on exposure to Agent Orange. Since 2010, the agency has seen the number of new claims filed annually increase by 48 percent, but they’ve only increased their claims’ staff by 5 percent.
Political finger pointing only complicates the situation. Democrats and many veterans’ advocates argue that the VA failed to prepare for the onslaught of wounded veterans from the long war in Iraq. Republicans counter that the backlog has exploded under President Barack Obama and has continued to worsen.
There is little evidence that the new computer system or additional employees will make a difference. Average wait times at all four offices equipped with the new computer system have increased. Furthermore, the VA has no timeline for computerizing claims brought by survivors for pension or death benefits. The VA has nonchalantly said they will be able to handle burial benefit claims “eventually.”
This “national embarrassment” is more than that: it is a national breach of faith and trust. In the current system every claim is met with skepticism; the burden is put on the veteran to retrieve service records, medical history, and doctor’s reports; and long delays frustrate and discourage.
I suggest a different approach: let’s trust our veterans. In a nutshell, have every claim carry with it a presumption of validity. We do this with tax returns–why not trust veterans who sacrificed life and limb? Set a reasonable time to accept or reject a claim, perhaps 60 days, and have the burden placed on the government to obtain service records and medical history. If the claim is not rejected for a legitimate reason within the time limit, benefits begin. Then like private disability insurance claims and tax returns, veterans’ claims would be subject to audit and refund if they turn out to be incorrect or fraudulent.
We would never allow a national insurance company to maintain the backlog that plagues the VA. Why should we accept it from a branch of our government? Instead of twiddling their thumbs and casting stones at one another, Congress could implement a program like the one I suggest in a matter of weeks. I believe the administration has the power to do so as well. The backlog could be eliminated by Christmas. But don’t hold your breath.
Politicians like photo-ops with veterans by their side, but when it comes to honoring our obligations to those who served and are now disabled or dead – well that’s another story.