The VA Backlog Conundrum
I’m somewhat sadly bemused by the increased reporting about the VA backlog of late. Everyone is acting as if this is somewhat of a new development, when it has been around at least as long as I have been working for The American Legion, and I was hired here back in 1998. In fact, my first job here was as a claims representative on the Board of Veterans Appeals. (As an aside, that was one of the most fulfilling jobs I have ever held. If you ever wanted to get started in veterans work, and can live without an exorbitant salary in an expensive city like DC, you should consider it.)
Every morning I would start by walking into the huge room that held all of the case files of people who had selected TAL to represent them. I would go to the file cabinet holding the oldest claims, and grab three or four of them to work on for the day. Each one was like a detailed biography of someone’s military career. I always started with the DD214, just to get a feel for what I was dealing with.
Working with the VA can be difficult. I had claims that made absolutely no sense, and they would get approved. I remember a guy who had PTSD from the Gulf War. Only, he never left the US. It was the fear of going overseas that caused his PTSD. He even claimed it made him impotent, despite the fact that he had three young children. Now, I suppose it is all possible, I just didn’t see much in there. Then there were cases I would lose, over and over. Like a gentleman who was a POW in World War II who died of ischemic heart disease. It should have been easy. Poor nutrition causes beriberi, which leads to ischemic heart disease. But it kept getting denied, because there was “no proof of localized edema of the feet” after his release. I even got a letter from one of the veteran’s friends that said that this guy’s feet were so swollen he had to wear shoes that were three sizes larger than when he went in.
Some of it would drive me crazy. Other times I would get a win, and the family would call and thank me, and it made my whole week just awesome.
But even back then, the wait times were ludicrous. I would submit a claim, and not hear back for months. And I was tracking all of them, because I had invested so much emotionally in the claims.
So anyway, now it seems the cause de jour to talk about the backlog, as if it sprung out of the ground yesterday. Today I came across a great graphic at “Ruptured Duck” at Stars and Stripes that belies this notion:
Every night one news program or another has on veterans telling their personal horror story about waiting on a claim. Everyone of them earned those benefits. And they wait. And the backlog grows.
I know most people don’t want to hear this, but one factor that is lengthening the waits is actually that the VA is doing a better job of including more people. The Agent Orange cases are one example of that: if you expand the number of people eligible for a benefit, you’d have to be willfully myopic not to realize that that will mean more people applying for those benefits and thus more claims. That pushes them all back.
“Blue Water Navy” veterans claims regarding Agent Orange is one example that I saw mentioned today in a McClatchy Newspaper:
Under VA policy, the department grants “presumption” in Agent Orange cases, meaning that it assumes veterans who served on land or in Vietnam’s inland waters were exposed to the chemical.
However, it lacks evidence that Agent Orange could have harmed the blue water veterans, who were at least a few miles offshore, said Jim Sampsel, an official in the VA disability division.
Several studies, including a 2011 report from the independent, nonprofit Institute of Medicine, have been unable to confirm that blue water Navy veterans were exposed.
The institute, which is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that Agent Orange was sprayed at low altitudes when the wind was blowing toward the shore to minimize contamination; any runoff would have been extremely diluted, Sampsel said. During the Vietnam War, the Navy refrained from using water for drinking or showering unless at least 10 miles offshore, Sampsel said.
I’m generally skeptical of government studies of this type. We’ve seen too many things that are less scientifically oriented, and more focused on limiting the government’s liability. Take for instance the DoD’s study of burn pits:
The pits at Balad were at one point open and burning everything from plastics and food to medical waste, sometimes with jet fuel used as an accelerant. In later years, incinerators were installed at Balad, but other bases in Iraq and Afghanistan still use the pits without incinerators to burn garbage.
The military said last year that smoke from the Balad pit exposed troops to toxic emissions, including low levels of cancer-causing dioxins. However, its tests indicated there is no long-term danger, officials said.
Remember, it wasn’t until 1994 that the companies that made Agent Orange even admitted that there might be health problems from their product.
So anyway, The American Legion has repeatedly called for further studies on Agent Orange and Blue Water Veterans, and for an expansion of the benefits to those veterans. From our resolution:
RESOLVED…That The American Legion support legislation that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) include as part of the Republic of Vietnam, for purposes of the presumption of service connection for diseases associated with exposure by veterans to certain herbicide agents while in Vietnam, such Republic's inland waterways, ports, harbors, waters offshore, and airspace; and …. The American Legion urges VA to conduct an epidemiological study of the long-term health outcomes of veterans that were “Blue Water Navy,” compared to their brown water and ground troop counterparts to evaluate “Blue Water Navy” veterans’ current injuries and illnesses, which may be related to Agent Orange and dioxin exposures.
And there is the conundrum again: if we succeed in our efforts, then there will be more people filing claims.
For some reason I don’t quite understand, some people are calling for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to jump the line, and have their claims addressed first. This seems like re-arranging deck furniture on the Titanic to me. You’d have the same number of claims pending, but it would be a different group of people waiting longer. That’s not really a long term solution, it only addresses the anecdotal problems that our current generation of veterans (myself included) will be facing, and pushing off those who might be closer to the end of their travels on planet Earth.
The American Legion put forth some solutions to the backlog issue in testimony to the House Veterans Affairs Committee last week:
While VA has been aggressively pursuing technological initiatives to reduce the backlog, they are not the only key to the solution for reducing the backlog. The American Legion recommended three specific actions for VA to take:
- Fix a broken work-credit system for VA employees, which gives the same credit for work, whether it is correct or incorrect.
- Develop a system to aggregate common errors made in claims processing, and use the information to create a training plan for employees.
- Hire more veterans to process claims to increase understanding of the military among those who are interpreting claims files.
No one likes hearing stories about veterans trying to make it day by day waiting on benefits they’ve earned through their honorable service, least of all me since these are my brothers and sisters in arms. But rearranging the order in which people get their claims heard isn’t a long term solution and isn’t particularly equitable. And blaming prior administrations doesn't help either (which seems to also be what is happening), so hopefully the VA will start looking towards solutions to the backlog issue, and spend less time lamenting a system they inherited. No one denies that the backlog has existed for years, but noting that it has doesn't fix the system. True, your reward for success in expanding benefits has been being saddled with more claims, but none of this happened in a vaccuum.