As Memorial Day nears, the plight of Americans who have borne the burden of fighting our wars should be uppermost in the minds of their countrymen. The growing frustration with the failure of the Veterans Administration to eliminate a huge and growing backlog of disability claims by members of the uniformed services is well justified and demands a timely response from the Obama administration.
Understandably, the VA has been overwhelmed. The global war on terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have required the services of millions of Americans, many of whom have been obliged to make repeated tours of duty in combat zones.
Over the past 12 years, about 2.5 million members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and related Reserve and National Guard units have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Department of Defense data. Of those, more than a third were deployed more than once. Nearly 37,000 have been deployed more than five times, and 400,000 service members have reportedly done three or more deployments.
As of last September, according to a report by McClatchy Newspapers, more than 1.6 million military members formerly deployed in what’s classified as the global war on terror — in Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily — had transitioned to veteran status. Of those, about 1 million were from active-duty service and about 675,000 from Reserve or Guard deployments.
These numbers are staggering, but they should not serve as an excuse for the failure of the VA to attend to the needs of the veterans in a timely manner. The VA has won major, well-justified budget increases under President Obama, but the number of veterans consigned to the prolonged backlog has only continued to grow.
According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, as of this week, 873,680 veterans have applied for VA disability benefits and are still waiting. Of these, 584,308 have been in the queue over 125 days. Some reports say average wait time in larger cities can be nearly two years, or 600 days. Delays have increased despite the installation of a $300 million computer system to process claims and the hiring of 765 additional claims processors since 2010.
According to published investigative reports, Florida is not among the worst states for backlogs, but with 1.6 million veterans residing in the Sunshine State, it is one of the most seriously affected by the problem at the VA.
Eric Shinseki, the retired four-star general who runs the VA, has promised to end the backlog by 2015, but that’s not enough. The organization should set benchmarks for completing the task and report to the public on whether they are being met.
It is particularly frustrating for younger veterans to try to deal with a system that still functions under rules and processes developed decades ago in which obtaining health records can be a lengthy process. The sooner that an integrated digital health system can be put in place, the sooner that veterans can have their claims adjudicated.
As the younger veterans age in the coming decades, the number of those applying for disability benefits will only grow. It’s past time to stop putting veterans in backlog limbo. They answered the call when America went to war. Now it’s time for their country to be there for them.