Try this on for size: The Department of Veterans Affairs own statistics show that as of December 29, 2012, the VA had 900,677 pending claims. The percentage of those claims over 125 days old (that's over four months, folks) is 68.9 percent. Think back to your school days. Seventy percent was passing, right? Just. So how would you grade the VA's performance?
San Francisco's The Bay Citizen reported on 12/20/2012 that at the end of the fiscal year in September 2012, retroactive benefits had been paid to the survivors of nearly 19,500 veterans who died waiting.
Really? Died waiting??
Reporter Aaron Glantz writes, "These veterans range from World War II veterans like Alderson who die of natural causes without their pensions to Iraq war veteran Scott Eiswert, who committed suicide after his disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder was denied."
The Iraq war ended a year ago, which brings me to my next point. That 68.9 percent is damning enough, but it doesn't show how long the wait really is. Mr. Glantz also reports that if you're in Chicago, New York or Los Angeles the average wait is 15, 16 and 18 months respectively. Or a year and a half. That's enough time for a child to be born and learn to walk. If you're a vet with multiple tours and possibly multiple injuries, it's a lifetime, and some don't make it.
Yes, the VA is trying. Yes, there's a new computer system that will be more efficient than handling claims on paper by hand. Where has that been implemented? Not in LA or Oakland. According to those official VA statistics Oakland leads LA with 83.6 percent of claims over 125 days old, almost a full percentage point greater than LA. Chicago's a close third at 80 percent. By contrast, if you live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the percentage is only 29.6 percent. Are we supposed to be proud? That's nearly one-third.
What kind of nation asks men and women to put their lives on hold and in jeopardy, promising them medical care and benefits, and then fails to deliver that care when it's most needed?
What do you do when you're under siege? You call for reinforcements. Isn't it time to call together all the direct caregivers, from the VA, the branches of the military, the Department of Defence and the community-based organizations that work with veterans to discuss and dialogue on real solutions? We're past being able to settle for a new raft of concepts and projections. We need to change those numbers now and for that we need solutions.
Community-based organizations like the National Veterans Foundation are dealing every day with veterans who need services. We get the calls on our NVF crisis hotline; we get them from other agencies working with vets, and I even get them from the combat zone on my personal cell phone. We are all trying to help, but just asking these vets to hold on... for what might be a year and a half is shameful and, worse, unconscionable.
Let me be the first to call for a presidential commission to bring together all the stakeholders to look for concrete, practical solutions that can be implemented immediately. There's a lot of brainpower and talent in this nation. Maybe we can all come up with expedient and productive ways to deliver the benefits our vets have earned. How, really, could we do anything less and maintain any sense of self-respect as a nation?