OK, let's cut to the chase: How are America's veterans really doing overall? While that question has no simple answer, what I can say is that there are a number of positives to share - but at least one very large negative.
In a briefing last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) candidly shared with the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee what it considers its greatest successes as well as its most urgent problems.
Attending the meeting were some dedicated staffers from Bergmann & Moore, a Maryland law firm that focuses solely on veterans' disability cases.
As a service to veterans and their loved ones, the firm summarized on its website the most important announcements from this very important but lamentably under-reported Congressional hearing.
I guess most reporters right now are just too concerned with the presidential race to, uh, talk about the actual issues.
But I digress. Bergmann & Moore notes that, with a staff of 320,000 and an annual budget of $140 billion, "VA continues expanding to meet the challenges of an aging
Vietnam War veteran population as well as a surge in growth among Gulf
War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War veterans."
But is VA indeed meeting these challenges? Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould,
who testified on behalf of VA, told the committee that the agency now provides
services to more than nine million veterans out of the 22 million veterans living in the United States.
That's an undeniably astounding number of people to care for. VA in fact remains the second largest government bureaucracy behind the Department of Defense (DoD).
Among the agency's biggest successes highlighted at the hearing is the Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits
program enacted in 2008, which has been a hugely successful program for many veterans and their families.
Another positive mentioned at the meeting that hasn't gotten much national media play is how much assistance VA has provided to veterans since
the housing bubble burst in 2008.
“VA has helped more than 119,000, or 82.5 percent of, defaulted VA borrowers avoid foreclosure,” said Gould in a written statement to the committee.
However, the albatross otherwise known as the VA’s disability claims crisis remains the agency's number one unresolved
challenge. And it virtually overshadows the successes mentioned above.
As Bergmann & Moore points out, "More than 67 percent of claims now wait more
than 125 days, with an error rate of 30 percent."
That's unacceptable, and everyone knows it.
In 2008, fewer than 900,000 veterans filed disability
claims. In 2011, claims filed rose to 1.3 million, and VA expects
to process 1.2 million claims this year, reports Bergmann & Moore.
VA’s challenge is of course due in large part to the enormous increase in post-traumatic stress disorder claims. From 2008 to 2012, the number of veterans compensated for PTSD increased by a whopping 64 percent.
PTSD, along with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), are the signature (but often invisible) wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
The hope is that the funding increases and improvements in technology will reduce the inexcusably large disability claims backlog.
But as Bergmann & Moore points out, "VA has a long way to
go to reach its goals of having no claims pending more than 125 days and having a two
percent error rate by 2015. "
A long way to go, indeed. But at least this ship is no longer sinking. The agency finally appears to be headed in the right direction. But we shall see.