The VA Backlog Conundrum

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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.

Posted in the burner | 23 comments
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This is only an adminstrative matter. The VA should send these claims to the entry level staff for automatic approval. The validation has already been accomplished by medical discharge or medical records. No excuse for delays is acceptable.
Larry Olson

The more fundamental question is Why do veterans have to fight for what they are entitled to? Why is so easy for our government to negate its contract and responsibilities with veterans? This is morally and socially irrehensible!

I am a Vietnam disabled American veteran and for the past 40 years, veterans have lways been on the offense fighting for benefits they are entitled to! This is a disgrace in a country that seems more than willing to spend trillions of dollars around the world. For example, when did we start giving money to Israel and what has been the total amount given them to date? And this is just one country!

When you add in government fiscal irresponsibility and Congressional misuse of public money the amount is staggering. What about the gross inefficiency of our government as a whole? What do you think the total amount of misused public money would be over the past 40 years?

How many modernized Veterans hospitals and clinics would this have built, equipped, and staffed? Would this not have been enough money to modernize the computer systems and processes by which claims are acted upon? Veterans deserve fast and responsible decisions in order to get the treatment the are entitled to.

When will the ROOT CAUSES ever be addressed? When will we stop treating the symptoms with "band-aids?" When we will start treating veterans with honor and respect?

When conflict and war occurs thousands of veterans are rendered disabled or pay the ultimate sacrifice. This is a cost that must be fully funded!

And yet year after year the VA is underfunded and veterans are forced to fight for the benefits.

I was told when I enlisted in 1957, Congress would call us GI meaning totally expendable and worthless. So what is new !! So Congess is only living up to expectations.

Create a government "gravy train" and they will come!

The percentage of Iraq/Afghanistan Era veterans who supposedly need help from Uncle Sugar is very suspicious.

I'm a combat veteran that served for over 10 years as a US paratrooper. I'm also a rater for the VA. I'd say about 90% of the claims I rate (of which probably 80% are approved) are for conditions that have absolutely nothing to do with service, other than they may have begun while in service. For example, the service can provide a free hysterectomy for a normal life health problem for some that served a couple of years as a clerk here in an air conditioned office, and then the VA pays 40-50% plus loss of use of creative organ for that for the rest of a woman's life. There are so many greedy bums out there trying to fich off the American taxpayers it really gums up the system for the guys who were actually wounded, injured in training, or get a disease from being overseas. Now take all these claims and put it in an environment where it's a lgal midefield thanks to all the appeals and court decisions, and it's extremly complex to decide and evaluate a claim. You've got the politicians breathing down your neck, the Secretary of the VA making promised we can't keep, and veterans and the bews bashing the people that work their asses off trying to help. If tyhe American people had anu idea what we were borrowing money to pay most veterans for they would be very upset. Look guys and gals, what we're doing is bankrupting America mostly to pay for BS that has nothing to do with service. I'm worried for our country and for the veterans that were actually wounded or injured as result of service, because by the time people figure this out we'll be too broke to pay everyone.

That's a very good comment.  Obviously we disagree on some of those things, as advocates we want the most for our people and such.  But it was incredibly well reasoned and well stated, and I wanted to specifically thank you for contributing it.

Wowo I read my post and I'm embarrassed. Sorry, I should have proof-read it. I am actually well-educated and knowledgeable, I just can;t type well. So sorry about that, the fact is we are buried in claims because everyone and their uncle wants money and it's a very technical process that takes time and effort from both the claimant and the VA. It would be great if we could streamline the process and change the law to only award compensation for conditions caused bys ervice, not just "incurred" in. I guess maybe I'm a little sour because I am a combat veteran and I sacrficed a lot, as did my brothers in arms, may of whom died in the sand. When I get a claim from a combat veteran, or anyone that was actually injured or got sick because f their service, I'm totally pumped and really proud and happy to serve that veteran. We just need to get a handle on this, and stop trying to bash the employees at the VA, most of whom are hard working Americans that want to help veterans.

First I thank you for your service. The issue at hand is that the system is not and has not worked for as long as I can remember. Efforts are made to 'fix' a crummy system and to hear you complain about the work and offer no solutions or suggestions. The best I have heard is to scrap the existing system and start over. If you are saying that you are approving claims that do not deserve approval then shame on you. Crying poverty for this country is laughable. It's not that we don't have the money it's that the people spending it are bonkers. This county has plenty of dough to pay those deserving but the VA cant seem to get out of its own way. I speak from experience for when I came home from Vietnam I went to the VA for medical help and my claim. They gave me Valiums and offered Thorazine!!!!!! The VA lost my paperwork, files and I gave up this was back in 1970. Until I had my breakdown in 1998 I would have never stepped a foot inside the shitty organization it still is. My claim is still waiting for resolution and I reopened it in 2005. Stop whining and add to the solution. It is now 2013, now is this a VA that is working????? Also shut up about the appeals and court cases. What are we supposed to do if the VA is wrong? I'm listening...........

I am not a full time client of the VA thanks to my military retirement but thru them and the DAV I was able to obtain my hearing aids at the Fort Myers, FL VA clinic. I started at the VA clinic in Port Charlotte where I live and after they lost my paper work twice and complained, I was directed to go to Fort Myers, FL. I was well received - but somehow, I was passed on the the DAV for initial processing. The following examinations and counseling were 4.0.

In speaking to some of the VA clients while waiting I learned that quite a few of the patients were not there for service-related problems but complaints that could be handled by a trip to the home medicine cabinet or a drug store. And then there were those (one of which is a friend) who is too cheap to buy his own medical insurance and is government dependent.

These are the people who are creating the problem. The VA through the government has a responsibility to care for and rehabilitate these sons and daughters who are being injured, crippled and maimed by fighting other county's battles. YOU HAVE GOT TO RE-VISIT THE CLAIM SYSTEM. TIME CONSUMING INVESTIGATING AND PUT THE BURDEN OF PROOF ON THE VA NOT ON THE PATIENT. Having finished my career in the administrative field, I know very well how lakadasical the service records of military are handled. Other than this I have no reason to complain about the VA.

My records were burnt in the records center fire and my claim is being dragged. I feel that I am being over looked.
I am a Korean War veteran and waited to file my claim after I was having a difficult time doing my job and use a walker to get around.

The DAV got my disability claim moving after years of rangling directly with the VA. There are plenty of senior, retirees out there looking for something worthwhile to do. Train them to process claims through the American Legion., DAV, etc. I did that for a while for our post but the VA didn't pay attention to that low a level.

Bio.,20 year Air Force retiree,21 year VA civil service retiree,Vietnam veteran,member of VFW and
American Legion. I am now 70 years old. I am not disabled but on the Agent Orange Registry catagory 8. I have never been asked for my opinion by either The AF or VA. I am thourghly discusted with the entire leadership of both, four star generals do not know how NCO's think and politically Appointed VA Directors do not know how an enlisted or for that matter junior officers think. As Harry Truman once said"If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen." Ask yourself, how does money and politics equate with getting your butt shot at in some God forsaken part of the world for a cause that is still not defined. My recommendation is for our 'leaders' to start asking and listening to those of us who have been there done that and are still wondering why. PS I failed the means test therefore all my VA care in on my dime.

I too recognize the VA should seek more professional help in processing our claims. I served 22 years in the Air Force and spent most of my career in the Security Forces career field. As a Viet Nam vet I waited quite some time before applying for disability. I guess i was one of the lucky ones as I never waited more than 4 months on any individual claim. After reaching a total of 180 per cent rating I was finally ask by the VA if I wanted to apply for unemployment disability. I was re-evaluated and submitted my claim and was approved in record time of 29 days. I witnessed considerable back log of fellow vets but must laud the VA for the promptness in my claims, My finally award was in 2006

Thanks buddy...good to see a level headed explanation by people who actually understand the problem

It is way past time that the VA fixed this problem. It is a disservice to our Veterans how have paid a high price for our freedom. If the Government won't fix this that they are going to find it harder and harder to get young men and women to go to into the Military. Their answer will be a draft. I belive that is what started this problem. They drafted so many young men for the Vietnam war and promised them health care. Now they don't want to honor that promise. Thses Honorable Veterans are being treated like the American Indians. When the Government makes a promise it is not worth a shit. Congress needs to get this problem fixed today and quit shoveling a pile shit to our citizens.

I was a member of the US Special Forces that was assigned to A-Teams in Vietnam II Corps. And I imagine that I and most others claiming contamination will be dead before VA finally admits the truth of rampant contamination. I have gone through areas in II Corps that was dense jungle that you had to literally cut your way through. Months later the same areas were dramatically clearer. You could actually walk through it unhampered by undergrowth and you could look up through the trees and actually see the sky. So congratulations VA, 69 years old I suspect I will never be compensated but I will make one more valiant effort for my family's sake.

I worked for the va back in 1974-1977. It was very frustrating as an employee to see the delays and unnecessary hoops vets were forced to go through. Accountability must begin in the mailroom!! Entirely too many forms are lost misplaced or misdirected from there. Additionally the public must be educated that if "we the people" are going to keep our word to our veterans then we must resolve this issue. One thing that people do not realize is that it takes 3 years at least to train a competent adjudicator, and the constant pressures of quantity vs quality only add to the complexity of the situation. Is it any wonder why VA has a high turnover in its adjudication division? Training, mentoring, and focusing clearly on getting it right the first time will eventually solve the issue, but it would mean not fighting any more wars for about 10 years to let the system catch up and modernize it currently archaic and onerous system.

I served a total of 31 years, five months before the Army decided they had used me up, and put me out. I was not too upset, figured I'd go fishing, do something with the wife, then worry about a job to add some income. The pension was not quite what I expected; but, not everything is smooth and easy. When I filed for VA benefits, they lost my paperwork 4 times, sent me to a clinic that I had to pay out of pocket for, next visit I was told by the staff "there is nothing we can do for you, go away" That was back in 2002, and you know, they were right, There is nothing that bunch of sorry-ass indiduals could do for me!! I have no idea how anyone can" fix the system" and I'm not sure anyone is really trying to fix it. Ater all, if they delay long enough, decide claims on the throw a dart basis, maybe we'll all go away or die. They still have the jobs and don't have to worry about doing any real work!! Win-Win for the system!!

I served my country in Vietnam and would do it again but with brain damage and other medical problems service connected it seems like I can't get any final result or answers. All this does is make problems worse for me and my wife which is disabled to. My doctors say I have the problems, why can't grown men in four years look overs my paper work and give me my pension. That war took my mind and agent orange took my middle son which is 44 years old retarded, blind etc. Please give me a break and let me and my wife live the last few of our year in peace, not rich but being able to pay our bills


Am I just venting to empty space or is anyone who can change this system reading these comments ? It seems that these comments from me and my comrads are going to empty space . I have never in my 30 years of paying dues been asked for my opinion. I like many of my fellow members are now opting out of an empty organization. Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard from the masses,now do the right thing.

I can assure you, I read each and every comment that comes in.  So yes, we listen.

We can only act on what we have a resolution on from higher.  If your post isn't holding meetings and passing resolutions, they should be.

Sir,That is my point exactally. On high is where the problem really is. We have such a convaluted path to go through to actually get to simple truths or simple ideas that most of the time the process is reduced to a moot point. ie the failed flag protection 'resoulution'.

Email me and we can discuss it if you like, I'm not entirely sure what you mean, and I want to be precise and try to answer any questions you have.



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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.