The economic meltdown that has dominated media coverage over
the past several months has overshadowed a crisis at the Department of Veterans
Affairs, an agency in dire need of new leadership, veterans groups and
Democratic lawmakers say.
The VA is now treating more than 350,000 Iraq and
Afghanistan war veterans and with the war in Iraq guaranteed to continue for at
least another three years, and with the possibility of more troops being sent
to fight in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of those veterans will likely seek
medical care and benefits from the VA for combat related injuries.
But the VA is still unprepared to meet these challenges.
In recent months, as benefits claims have piled up at the
VA, some of the agency�s 250,000 employees have apparently become so
overwhelmed with their workload that they were prepared to shred hundreds of
benefits claims in order to avoid processing the forms, thereby denying
veterans the benefits they have come to depend upon to survive.
Last month, internal watchdogs discovered 500 benefits
claims in shredding bins at 41 of the 57 regional VA offices around the
The incident resulted in a hastily arranged roundtable
discussion last month, led by House Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner who
excoriated the VA for creating a �culture of dishonesty� that he said has
become so pervasive over the years that it has completely shattered the confidence
of war veterans who feel they can no longer depend on the agency for help when
they return from combat.
�This episode has further strengthened my belief that VA
desperately needs new leadership, and it needs new leadership today,� Filner,
D-CA, said. �These incidents and �mistakes,� all occurring to the detriment of
our veterans and never to their benefit, remind me more of the Keystone Cops
rather than a supportive organization dedicated to taking care of our veterans.
�First, I am not convinced that only 500 documents were
saved from the shredding bin. This is merely a snapshot in time. The VA was
unable to convince me that more documents have not been shredded in the past
and I honestly do not know how many records have been destroyed and how many
files lost over the past decades.�
Two days before the Nov. 19 meeting, Secretary of Veterans
Affairs Dr. James B. Peake responded to the controversy stating that he was
�deeply concerned that improper actions by a few VA employees could have caused
any veterans to receive less than their full entitlement to benefits earned by
their service to our nation.�
�In rectifying this unacceptable lapse, VA will be guided by
two principles -- full accountability for VA staff and ensuring veterans
receive the benefit of the doubt if receipt of a document by VA is in
question,� Peake said.
The VA extended the deadline to Nov. 19, 2009, for veterans
to resubmit benefits claims filed between April 14, 2007, and Oct. 14, 2008,
may have ended up in one of the 47 shredding bins. Additionally, the agency
said shredding equipment at regional offices is now under the control of the
facility records management officer. The VA said all bins that contain
documents for shredding are subject to review and two people and the facility
records management officer must approve benefits claims that are shredded.
Peake said the VA�s inspector general is continuing to
investigate cases �where inappropriate shredding may be traceable to a specific
employee� and the agency will initiate �legal and disciplinary action . . . to
hold accountable any employee who has acted improperly.�
Admiral Patrick Dunne, the Under Secretary for Benefits for
the VA, who attended last week�s roundtable discussion with Filner, said
benefits claims slated for the shredder underscores the VA�s need to address
poor document handling procedures. It doesn�t mean the VA trying to prevent
veterans from obtaining benefits.
Dunne suggested the VA move to an electronic filing system
to safeguard benefits claims.
But Filner said he doesn�t trust the VA and does not
believe, under Peake, that the agency can get its act together.
�We have heard promises from the VA before,� Filner said.
�We have heard that the claims process will go paperless. Training will be
improved. VA�s latest promise is that veterans can submit statements containing
information that will be used in the adjudication process in lieu of documents
missing from their files. While this is an important step forward, I am
skeptical that this new step will become part of the claims process
�Additionally, the VA�s outreach has been limited to a
reliance on media reports and a message on the VA website. The VA did not
report a systematic way of reaching out to veterans to alert them of new
policies that may have huge implications in their claims going forward.
Congress must hold the VA accountable for a job not well done. A complete
paradigm shift is necessary and I look forward to working with new leadership
to correct the problems plaguing the benefits claims system.�
The VA has been the subject of numerous lawsuits related to
the backlog of benefits claims that in some cases can take as long as a six
month to process and as long as four years to appeal if they are rejected.
In the book, �The Three Trillion Dollar War,� by Joseph
Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, the authors wrote that �even in 2000, before the
war� the VA was the subject of numerous Government Accountability Office
studies that �identified long-standing problems, including large backlogs of
pending claims, lengthy processing time for initial claims, high rates of error
in processing claims, and inconsistency across regional offices.�
�In a 2005 study,� Stiglitz and Blimes wrote, �the GAO found
that the time to complete a veteran�s claim varied from 99 days at the Salt
Lake City Office to 237 days in Honolulu. In a 2006 study, GAO found that 12
percent of claims were inaccurate.�
The authors estimate that the VA will spend hundreds of
billions of dollars in healthcare and disability benefits over several decades
and the process for approving benefits claims could average one year. Last
March, the VA was sued in federal court by two veterans groups who sought a
preliminary injunction to force the VA to immediately treat veterans who show
signs of post traumatic stress disorder and are at risk of suicide and to
overhaul internal system that handles benefits claims.
The federal judge who presided over the case, ruled last
June that he lacked the legal authority to force the VA to immediately treat war
veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and could not
order the VA to overhaul its internal systems that handle benefits claims and
medical services. However, in an 82-page ruling U.S. District Court Judge
Samuel Conti said that it is �clear to the court� that �the VA may not be
meeting all of the needs of the nation�s veterans.�
During a trip to Alaska in May to meet with a Vietnam
veteran, Peake, the Secretary of the VA, said concerns about PTSD were
�overblown� and likened some cases �to what anyone who played football in their
youth might have suffered.�
He said veterans who suffer from the disease just �need a
little counseling� and don�t �need the PTSD label their whole lives.�
Peake�s comments were made just a couple of weeks after the
RAND Corporation released a study that said about 300,000 U.S. troops sent to
combat in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from major depression or PTSD, and
320,000 received traumatic brain injuries largely due to multiple deployments.
�There is a major health crisis facing those men and women
who have served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan,� said Terri Tanielian, a
researcher at RAND who worked on the study.
�Unless they receive appropriate and effective care for
these mental health conditions, there will be long-term consequences for them
and for the nation. Unfortunately, we found there are many barriers preventing
them from getting the high-quality treatment they need.�
On July 25, the veterans� advocacy groups who filed the
lawsuit against the VA, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for
Truth, appealed the judge�s ruling at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They
are still waiting to hear if the appeals court will hear the case.
Now the VA is the subject of a similar lawsuit filed by two
other veterans� advocacy groups who claim that the VA�s failure to process
benefits claims in a timely manner has caused severe economic hardships for
hundreds of thousands of veterans.
�The VA�s failure to provide timely benefits decisions often
leads to financial crises, homelessness, addiction and suicide,� says the
lawsuit filed two weeks ago in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
by Vietnam Veterans for America and Veterans of Modern Warfare.
The lawsuit demands the VA provide veterans with interim
benefits while they wait for their claims to be processed.
Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common
Sense, said the VA has a full-blown crisis on its hands. In a letter sent to
President-elect Barack Obama recently, Sullivan said the VA needs �an immediate
overhaul to avert a perfect storm of problems threatening to overwhelm� the
�The economic recession is forcing more veterans who have
lost their jobs and medical care into VA,� Sullivan said. The VA �faces a
tsunami of up to one million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans flooding into VA.
And . . . VA faces a surge of hundreds of thousands of additional Vietnam War
veterans seeking care for mental health conditions as well as medical
conditions linked to Agent Orange poisoning.
�Our vision is that whenever a veteran comes to any VA
facility, his or her medical and benefit needs should be quickly and completely
addressed, without red tape, delay, stigma, or discrimination. For too many
veterans this vision is a fantasy, however, because recent VA leadership has
failed to put our veterans first and has inadequately funded vital services and
On his transition website, change.gov,
Obama said he intends to �Fix the Benefits Bureaucracy: Hire additional claims
workers, and improve training and accountability so that VA benefit decisions
are rated fairly and consistently. Transform the paper benefit claims process
to an electronic one to reduce errors and improve timeliness.�
According to Sullivan�s organization, less than half of the
veterans diagnosed with PTSD by VA receive disability compensation. Out of
83,436 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with PTSD by VA, only 38,448
(or 46 percent) were granted service connection for PTSD by VA.
Sullivan places much, if not all, of the blame for such squarely
on President George W. Bush�s shoulders.
�Additional funding and new laws pushed through by Congress
in 2007 should have some impact next year,� Sullivan said in an interview. �But
�until VA�s failed leadership is removed, until VA�s policies are streamlined,
and until VA�s budget is significantly increased and stabilized, then the legacy
of President Bush�s failures may last for generations.�
Filner agreed with Sullivan�s assessment and said the VA is
now at a �critical juncture.�
The VA �is on the verge of completely losing the trust and
confidence of the people that it is supposed to represent . . . the very same
people it has been entrusted to care for,� he said. These [benefits claims] are
matters of life and death for some of these veterans.�
Leopold is the author of �News Junkie,� a memoir. Visit
for a preview. His new website is The