Thousands of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental health problems are encountering a benefits system that is already overburdened, and officials and veterans' groups are concerned that the challenge could grow as the nation remains at war.I probably would've skipped the story entirely, but for this letter from VA Secretary Anthony Principi (himself a wounded Vietnam vet) in today's Post. He takes issue with the article's statistics, its tone, and even its anecdotes:
The disability benefits and health care systems that provide services for about 5 million American veterans have been overloaded for decades and have a current backlog of more than 300,000 claims. And because they were mobilized to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 150,000 National Guard and reservist veterans had become eligible for health care and benefits as of Aug. 1. That number is rising.
At the same time, President Bush's budget for 2005 calls for cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims, and some veterans report long waits for benefits and confusing claims decisions.
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Through the end of April, the most recent accounting the VA could provide, a total of 166,334 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan had separated from military service, and 26,633 -- 16 percent -- had filed benefits claims with the VA for service-connected disabilities. Less than two-thirds of those claims had been processed, leaving more than 9,750 recent veterans waiting.
Officials expect those numbers to increase as the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continues.
"I think we're doing okay now, but I am worried," VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said in a recent interview. "It is something you have to be concerned about. We don't have a good handle on the extent to which the demand for care and benefits will be a year or five years from now."
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) was dead wrong in his assertion that my department is underfunded and unprepared. The story's assertion that the VA fiscal 2005 budget cuts 500 claims examiners' jobs was also wrong. While there may be a small reduction in the Veterans Benefits Administration, we will have added more than 1,300 claims processors since I took office in 2001.So who's right? Unfortunately, it's really hard to tell. Mr. White is correct that the VA budget -- specifically, the line items for the Veterans Benefits Administration that doles out money -- was cut for FY2005. However, Sec. Principi is right to point out that the VA has worked hard to improve its systems for benefits determinations and payment. I have personal knowledge of this, as a vet with a small service-connected disability. The process has improved significantly since when I filed my initial application in 2002 to now, where nearly everything is automated. Granted, some amount of friction remains, as it does in every large bureaucratic institution. But the VA has been very aggressive in doing predictive analysis to assess its needs, reforming its infrastructure to the extent the law allows, and contracting out for more medical support when necessary to meet demand. You will still find long lines for VA services, but given the high demand right now, I think they're doing a good job.
The story erred in calling the VA's workload inventory of more than 300,000 claims a "backlog." At any given time, more than 250,000 claims are being processed; we receive over 60,000 every month. We have greatly improved service for veterans since 2001. The inventory of pending claims is down from a high of 432,000. We have increased the number of claims decisions we make in a month from about 40,000 to about 70,000.
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My concern is that we provide the benefits and services that all veterans, especially those wounded in combat, need. President Bush, working with Congress, has given us the resources to do so.
Is a good job enough? Sadly, no. America's veterans deserve more than good effort -- they deserve good treatment too. The VA has decided to cut services and realign its priority system to allocate its scarce resources to those veterans with the greatest medical need and the greatest financial need. Unfortunately, this creates a services gap, which has the potential to swallow a number of veterans with more chronic ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder, long-term respiratory issues, long-term orthopaedic issues, and so on. Over time, some of this may level out as the WWII and Korea generations age and today's generation of veterans increasingly obtains its health care from the private sector. But right now, there is a train wreck, because you still have a large WWII/Korea population and a large population of current combat vets seeking immediate care after service before they acquire coverage from their civilian employers.
Even if Secretary Principi is right that the VA is doing a good job, there is still more to be done. And when it comes to these men and women, who have given so much in our name, I think it's the least we can do. Congress and the President ought to be more aggressive in identifying other areas of fiscal largess that could be shifted to this area. I can think of dozens of defense projects alone that deserve to be eliminated in favor of America's veterans -- I'm sure there are plenty more.