|(NBC News photo)|
It’s been called a “bureaucratic nightmare” and a “national disgrace,” but the staggering backlog of nearly 1 million veterans benefit claims at the VA should be called a scandal.
And President Obama and the VA administrator, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, squarely deserve the blame.
As this story picks up steam, it’s been reported that the wait for vets to have a disability claim processed now exceeds 600 days in big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. NBC News found one disabled vet whose wait was 963 days.
Perhaps the most astounding aspect of this disturbing story is that 97 percent of disability claims are still handled on paper, not electronically. Some disability claim files amount to a 3-inch stack of paper – mostly medical records. Worse yet, after years of wrangling between the Defense Department and the VA over a digitized, integrated system, the Pentagon has simply abandoned its role in creating a new, paperless process.
Some vets die waiting for the benefits that they earned in service to the country. Some become so frustrated with VA red tape that they commit suicide.
The president is calling for additional VA funding in his new budget but it’s too little, too late.
According to The Washington Post, Shinseki acknowledged that the VA has already seen large increases in its funding — 41 percent during the Obama administration — even as the backlog, which stood at 391,000 when the president took office in January 2009, has skyrocketed.
Beyond the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, major reasons for the growth in the backlog include Shinseki’s decisions to ease rules for making claims related to post-traumatic stress disorder and the toxic herbicide Agent Orange.
The Agent Orange decision, which added 260,000 Vietnam-era cases to the system, represented “unfinished business that we wanted to pay attention to,” Shinseki said recently.
The VA says the problem was “decades in the making,” but the IAVA, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has said the agency was woefully unprepared for the flood of veterans coming back from the nation’s two wars.
Obama has embraced electronic record keeping since the day he was elected. In 2009 he announced a plan to create a seamless system for the military. That plan has failed miserably.
At Time magazine, columnist Joe Klein ratcheted up the discussion recently by calling for Shinseki’s resignation.
Here’s how Klein summed up the situation:
“We have now spent $1 billion on developing (a digitized) system, and in February the two departments announced that they had failed to come up with one. This was not Shinseki's fault. The VA has an excellent record-keeping system called Vista. The Defense Department wasn't sold, however. It hasn't decided what sort of system it wants. If the president were on top of things -- if he were as good as his word about taking care of the troops -- he would step in and force the decision to be made. Yesterday.
“Shinseki should, however, take the fall for the infamous 900,000 unprocessed cases. Yes, the backlog doubled when the Obama administration, rightly, enabled Vietnam veterans to make Agent Orange claims. But the VA hasn't set the right priorities. A Marine who was blinded and lost two limbs last year in Helmand province goes into the same queue as a Vietnam veteran who wants increased payments because his back is deteriorating with age. First-time claims need to be handled before second-, third- and fourth-time claims.”