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Despite promises, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t looking any better

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Posted: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 12:00 am

Recently, I was listening to a program on NPR in which Terri Gross, host of "Fresh Air," was interviewing Aaron Glantz, a journalist who wrote the book "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans." The book is based on facts about the Veteran’s Administration obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

During the interview, Glantz related some astounding statistics about the Veteran's Administration:

  • The current "backlog" of service-related disability claims is a whopping 600,000 (backlog is defined as claims older than four months).
  • Total unprocessed claims are estimated at 900,000, with an estimate that there will be more than 1 million unprocessed claims by the end of 2013.
  • The average waiting period for claim resolution is 273 days.
  • During the past fiscal year ending September 2012, 20,000 vets died either from natural causes or suicide while waiting for a claim disposition.
  • The federal government spent $537 million on a new computer system, but 97 percent of claims are still on paper.
  • Despite a 40-percent increase in funding to the VA over the past four years, staffing is still not at a level that could have a substantial impact on the backlog.

This interview hit home, because in 2010, the VA finally acknowledged that Vietnam-era vets have been significantly affected health-wise by exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide/defoliant mixed with jet fuel that was sprayed over jungle areas in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in order to deprive guerilla fighters of cover. Fourteen illnesses fell under this determination, including heart disease, Parkinson's disease, several forms of leukemia and prostate cancer.

In late 2011, my husband filed a claim under the VA's "Fast Track" program for Vietnam-era vets exposed to Agent Orange, a program that promised a 30-day window for a disability determination. The prerequisite for submitting a claim is "proof of service in-country (Form DD214)" during the war and medical proof of one or more of the illnesses covered by this program.

After nine months of waiting and four calls to the VA, each with conflicting information, we finally turned to Rep. Jerry McNerney's office in Stockton for help. McNerney's VA liaison was able to track down the claim, which we had previously been told was "somewhere in Tennessee." Unbelievably, the claim and all substantiating documentation was finally located in the VA's archives, meaning it had been "filed away" without even being reviewed.

A letter from Rep. McNerney's office indicated that the claim was being forwarded to the VA's Oakland Regional Office for adjudication.

Six months after this revelation, we are still waiting. A visit to the VA's office in Oakland two weeks ago revealed that, as of December 2012, the claim had reached the level at which a disability specialist will make a decision on what the "percentage" of disability, if any, resulting from a covered illness or illnesses (ranging from 10 percent to 100 percent), will be.

I encourage anyone who might be in a similar situation to reach out for assistance from your congressional representative, and keep making phone calls and in-person visits to the VA until you get an answer. With hundreds of thousands of vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with missing limbs, PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, among other health issues, the problem at the VA will, as predicted, only increase.

On a recent episode of "The Daily Show," host Jon Stewart took President Obama to task for this national disgrace, citing Obama's promise during the 2008 campaign that he would make improvements at the VA a priority for his administration. Granted, funding has increased, but no significant advances have been made. In no uncertain terms, Stewart called the current situation at the VA "(expletive deleted) criminal."

Our veterans should not have to fight for their benefits at every turn. They should be appreciated for their service and supported and cared for, when necessary, with expedience and respect.

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