01/25/2013 04:45 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Veteran Waits Four Years for Help

The Obama administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs are unsurpassed when it comes to voicing support for veterans. And the VA, under Eric Shinseki, has made significant progress toward its announced goals of ending veterans homelessness and erasing that huge backlog of claims that's been stacking up for years.
And yes, the VA has been swamped with skyrocketing demands from veterans. Men and women returning from war service in Iraq and Afghanistan have more disabling conditions -- and more complex ones -- than past generations of vets -- Traumatic Brain Injury, for one. And yes, Congress has heaped new demands on the VA by requiring (rightly) that the government compensate veterans who were exposed to the chemical herbicide, Agent Orange, during the Vietnam War. The VA is working through 260,000 previously denied claims for Agent Orange-related health problems.
Still, it was dismaying to read that the VA inspector general, in a routine audit of the VA's claims-processing work, stumbled across the case of a disabled veteran who filed a disability claim on October 25, 2007. According to the VAOIG report, the VA regional office folks set it aside -- for seven months. Inexplicably, they next sent the paperwork to the place least likely to act: Washington, D.C. There it sat "apparently undetected," the Inspector General wryly noted, for three years and three months. That September (2011), someone dusted it off and sent it all back to the regional office. Where it sat (apparently undetected) until December 1, 2011.
You'd hope that at that point the veteran was located, if still living, and paid his or her darn money.
But no. At the end of the four years, the VA wasn't ready to actually PAY the claim, only to LOOK at it. Or in officialese, to "establish control of the claim."
That's what took four years, or more precisely, 1,498 days.
The VA does have a standard for long long it should take to "establish control" over a claim.
Seven days.
In the IG report, the next story is about a guy who waited a mere 837 days for his claim. The grim stories just go on and on and on.
VA Secretary Shinseki told me last fall that he has reforms in place, including electronic claims processing systems, that will eventually reduce or eliminate such problems.
I hope he's right.