On Thursday, I received a rather self-congratulatory press release from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announcing that it is initiating new efforts to cut red tape for veterans waiting for their disability benefits. On the very same day, it was revealed that nearly 20,000 veterans died while waiting for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to process their claims.
The Bay Citizen newspaper reported the deeply troubling news that during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, VBA, which is part of the VA, paid a staggering $437 million in retroactive benefits to the families of 19,447 deceased veterans who still had outstanding claims when they died.
This shocking revelation, which was uncovered by investigative journalist Aaron Glantz, is a bombshell that may finally force an urgently needed overhaul of the beleaguered VBA, where nearly one million veterans currently wait an average of nine months for a decision.
The fact that almost 20,000 veterans died while waiting for their claims is both a tragedy and a disgrace. This news should be the subject of an A-1 story in every newspaper, a cover story in every magazine, and the lead story on every news broadcast. But sadly, it has not gotten the widespread coverage it deserves.
“How many veterans need to die before this mess is cleaned up?" asks Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and one of the nation's leading veteran advocates. Sullivan, who once worked at VA and now works at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that represents only veterans, says flatly, "No more delays, and no more errors. That's what the goal should and must be.”
This issue originally came to light when Veterans for Common Sense sued VA in 2007. The groundbreaking lawsuit, which I've covered for The Reno Dispatch and for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, forced VA to reveal that a few thousand veterans died each year while their claims languished at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) in Washington, DC.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told the Bay Citizen that the data confirmed the worst fears of many veterans and members of Congress.
“The common refrain we hear from many veterans is, ‘Delay, deny, wait till I die,’” said Miller, who called the burgeoning backlog of benefits claims a “national embarrassment.”
Miller is absolutely right. But his outrage begs the question: Where is President Obama? He has repeatedly pledged his commitment to veterans, and has specifically promised to address the backlog of veteran disability claims. It's time for the President to step up and have a dialogue with the American people about this issue.
He should call a press conference today to address this latest news, and share with all of us just what he intends to do about it.
So, just what are VA’s current rules for expediting claims? At BVA, an elderly veteran can ask for advancement on the board’s docket, a request for a faster review. However, at VBA’s 57 regional offices, there are no regulations mandating that VBA provide expedited handling in cases of age, a terminal condition, homelessness, or financial hardship such as foreclosure or eviction.
If a veteran tells VBA he or she is homeless, VBA often voluntarily provides faster service, with a goal of processing the claim in 45 days or less.
Unfortunately, VBA usually refuses to expedite claims in the face of urgent need by a terminal veteran. In one legal case that is represented by Bergmann & Moore, a 90-year old World War II veteran’s claim still awaits action after more than four years at VBA.
Are new VA regulations and/or Congressional action needed to fix this problem, so fewer veterans die while waiting? Absolutely. Is it time for Miller and others in Congress to act, and for the President to get directly involved? Definitely.
Meantime, the VA's curiously timed press release on Thursday said the VA is cutting red tape for veterans by eliminating the need for them to complete an annual Eligibility Verification Report (EVR). VA will implement a new process for confirming eligibility for benefits, and staff that had been responsible for processing the old form will instead focus on eliminating the compensation claims backlog.
Historically, beneficiaries have been required to complete an EVR each year to ensure their pension benefits continued. Under the new initiative, VA will work with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) to verify continued eligibility for pension benefits.
“By working together, we have cut red tape for Veterans and will help ensure these brave men and women get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement.
Shinseki, himself a Vietnam veteran, seems like a sincere man who cares about his fellow veterans. But to date his efforts, and the efforts of all the politicians in Washington DC combined, have fallen short.
Of course, there was no mention in the VA's press release this week of the shocking number of veterans who are dying while waiting for their claims to be processed. This is a national crisis. We need to address it with very serious measures, and we need to do it now. Our veterans have bravely fought for us. Now it's time for us to fight for them.