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Editorial: VA Battles Its Backlog; Disability Claims Take Too Long

Is there a federal program that suffers a more pronounced performance gap than veterans benefits? The difference between what is proclaimed as the nation’s solemn responsibility to the men and women who served and what is actually delivered remains distressingly wide. And it’s been that way for a long time — from the World War I veterans who protested their treatment during the Hoover administration to wounded warriors treated with callous indifference at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the beginning of this century.

Staff writer Chris Fleisher’s look last Sunday at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ ongoing effort to address one of its most serious failings — the long delay suffered by many vets who file claims for disability benefits — presents a mixed bag for those hoping the gap is closing. On the one hand, there’s no denying the severity of the problem and the certainty that a system already overwhelmed by its workload faces a steady escalation in demand for service. On the other, it’s hard not to be impressed by the VA’s commitment to eliminating that backlog. The department has established a specific goal, set a target date and implemented a strategy for achieving it.

The goal is straightforward: By 2015, no veteran should wait more than 125 days after filing a claim for disability benefits to receive a decision. The system is not close to performing at that standard now. Almost 70 percent of all pending claims are backlogged, accounting for almost 600,000 veterans waiting to learn how much help they’ll receive to compensate for earnings lost because of a service-related injury. On average, a veteran will wait more than nine months to have a claim processed — more than twice as long as the 125-day standard.

Fleisher reported that New Hampshire and Vermont veterans fare comparatively well, getting their claims processed about two months faster on average than those in the rest of the country. Still, the 209-day average processing time at the regional office on Etna Road, which handles claims from veterans living in Vermont and Canada, is more than two months slower than the benchmark.

Also easy to grasp is the magnitude of the challenge faced by the VA system. The Veterans Benefits Administration has been inundated with about 1 million claims in each of the last three years. Contrary to what many might assume, the greatest proportion of the backlogged requests comes not from veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but from Vietnam-era vets. The silver lining in that news is the fact that the upsurge in demand from that group is largely the result of expanded benefits — the VA has rightfully acknowledged, for example, its obligation to those suffering from exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant. But it is sobering to think about lays ahead for the VA in coping with the consequences of the post-9/11 wars, not just in terms of numbers but also veterans who are afflicted with multiple injuries.

The VA’s strategy involves retraining its workers and restructuring the process so that claims are grouped according to what sort of challenge they’re likely to present, with the easiest cases identified for express service and the most complicated separated out for special attention. One element of the overall strategy that invites skepticism is the VA’s faith that replacing paper with electronic records will play a key role in achieving its goal. The VA believes the change will reduce errors, improve the ability of the VA to share information with the Pentagon, expand access and otherwise streamline the process. Considering the propensity of the military, the federal government and the health care system to produce and bury themselves in paper, the move away from a paper-based system seems promising. But similar benefits were envisioned for moving civilian health records on to computers, and the switch seems to have accomplished little, so far, beyond frustrating patients and caregivers.

It was encouraging to learn that veterans face no such backlog when seeking health treatment. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan automatically receive five years of health care. And the VA hospital in White River Junction continues to draw consistently favorable reviews from its patients, including women veterans who appreciate the center’s recognition of the need to provide them with specialized treatment.

And to hear about how the Etna Road office has reduced its claims backlog by a third despite being temporarily displaced from the White River Junction hospital complex while its office is renovated is to be impressed by the dedication of VA employees, most of whom are veterans. Still, this country’s track record suggests that optimism should be tempered with caution. We’re better at promising to do right by our veterans than actually doing it.