J. D. Heyes
May 27, 2012
We depend on them to protect our country, our lives, our freedom, our way of life. So why does our government continue to shortchange our veterans by chronically underfunding the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), especially at a time when our vets need the VA the most?
As lawmakers and the president continue to pour billions into social programs that help earn them votes, once again the nation’s veterans are getting the shaft. Take the case of Rebecca Tew, a 43-year-old psychologist who fought for seven years to get benefits due her husband, Duane Kozlowski, after he left the Army with brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so bad he couldn’t hold a job.
Eventually she got them, but not before she borrowed $20,000 from family, ran up tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills for Duane, stopped paying on student loans and ruined her credit in the process. As of this writing, she was working on finding a landlord willing to rent to her, her husband and their five children.
“It’s basically been like a tornado,” she toldBusinessWeek, regarding her dealings with the VA. “It’s wiped out our future. It’s wiped out our relationship with our extended family. It’s wiped everything out and we’re starting out again below ground.”
More claims made, more on the way
The sad thing is, Tews and Kozlowski are only two people caught up in the VA’s painfully slow and underfunded bureaucracy at a time when tens of thousands of needy vets are returning from a decade of war in two theaters.
Worse, the current tidal wave of disability claims are only piling up in a system that was already lethargic and unresponsive, simply because Congress and the Pentagon have never allotted resources to the VA that would allow the department to fulfill its mission to our nation’s finest.
The numbers say it all: disability cases filed with the VA have risen 48 percent just in the past four years to 1.3 million in 2011, a period of time covering the end of the surge in Iraq and the ramp-up in troop levels and combat action in Afghanistan.
In addition to repeated deployments, which add to the numbers of PTSD cases, scores of brain-damaged troops are returning from battlefields defined not by traditional combat but by high numbers of vehicle impacts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The VA couldn’t handle its load before. Now, it is simply overwhelmed.
Of about 905,000 claims pending at the department, nearly two-thirds of them are taking longer than the VA’s 125-day target for handling claims. And the backlog is not only delaying veterans’ care, it’s placing a huge financial burden on them as well – which, in turn, is only fueling veteran anger at Uncle Sam.
“A lot of veterans feel betrayed after being wounded, injured or sickened in the service of the country. The government is just not fulfilling their promises to them,” David Autry, a Washington-based spokesman forDisabled American Veterans, a group that helps veterans with their VA claims, toldBusinessWeek.
The California-basedRAND Corp., a non-profit research organization, says about one-third of returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan may have brain injuries, depression or PTSD.
Pledge to get better, faster
The VA says its goal is to get to the 125-day target.
“In 2015, our requirement is no claim over 125 days,” said Allison Hickey, the veterans department’s undersecretary for benefits. “And we’re going to get there.”
She said the department is adding technology, placing review teams at regional offices and redirecting the tougher claims to more experienced personnel in order to meet the agency’s goal.
But again, the VA’s history has been one of slow response.
Michael Wade, a former Army reservist who lives in Alexander, Ark., who returned from Iraq in 2005 with mental health issues, said he finally got the benefits he had coming – six years later, in 2011.
“Somebody who went through what we did over there, they shouldn’t have to fight for four years to get what they deserve,” he said, according toBusinessWeek. “I’ve got friends of mine, they’re going through the same thing.”
For the record, a special commission in 1996 advised Congress on how to fix the VA’s claim system.
Sources for this article include: