Does Veterans' benefits scandal offer a forecast for Obamacare?

Lincoln may be turning in his grave due to a scandal involving the current generation of veterans. Photo: US Army soldiers in Iraq November 2009 (wikicommons)

SAN JOSE, November 19, 2013 — On this date in 1863, one hundred and fifty years ago, an incredible president gave an incredibly meaningful speech at the dedication of the cemetery to honor the memory of the Union Army soldiers who “gave the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg. Today, Mr. Lincoln may be turning in his grave due to a very serious scandal involving the current generation of men and women who gave their full measure of devotion in serving their country. Yet last week, another president giving another speech on veterans, at a different national cemetery, delivered hollow words. 

During a few days of the Federal government shutdown in October President Obama’s Administration may have slipped up and revealed its true colors when the White House ordered the closing of the nation’s memorials and national monuments, and the stench of politically motivated actions backfired as several veterans were denied access to the very memorials erected to remember their heroism. However, this slip was quickly justified as a minor mistake and blame deflected to Congress. Yet a park ranger divulged to the Washington Times, “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can.” Unfortunately, he was not providing a confession under oath at a criminal trial.

This was not surprising as President Obama is known to be politically vindictive as seen from the fight over the sequester when he ordered government agencies to make the two percent budget cut as painful and scary as possible. This may have also been a factor during the recent shutdown when the Department of Defense denied death benefits for 26 families of fallen servicemen who were trying to retrieve their loved ones’ remains from Dover Air Force Base. This was after Congress passed the Pay Our Military Act to fund the military through the shutdown because the intent of reducing the Administration’s spending spree was not aimed at denying veteran’s their benefits.

In reality though, an even more serious issue involving veterans’ benefits is the ongoing scandal within the Obama Administration regarding the handling (or mishandling) of the backlog of payments on veterans’ benefits. The Washington Times reported last week that according to a review of the latest statistics from the Veterans Affairs Department,  “more than 700,000 former servicemen and women remain waiting for medical benefits owed to them because of a backlogged system that takes an average of 300 days to navigate.” This report provides a more realistic vision of VA claims processing efficiency than what the President portrayed during his speech on this year’s Veteran’s Day.

The real irony is that Obama vowed during the 2008 Presidential campaign to reduce virtually all VA claim decisions to an average of 125 days by the end of 2015. When he assumed the presidency, approximately 390,000 outstanding claims existed from the   Bush Administration. VA statistics at the end of the fiscal year in 2012 revealed that the outstanding claims were at 883,949 remaining to be processed. This represents more than double an increase in the outstanding claims during President Obama’s first term.  By contrast, as Bush began his second term, the VA was behind on processing of about 480,000 claims. Obama’s VA seems to be operating counter to his promise.

Less than three months after he was inaugurated, President Obama made a big show of    his commitment to the veterans when he appeared with then Secretary Gates of the Department of Defense and Secretary Shinseki of the Department of Veterans Affairs to announce his grand plan to improve the VA. Among other words, President Obama stated:

For their service and sacrifice, warm words of thanks from a grateful nation are more than warranted, but they aren’t nearly enough.  We also owe our veterans the care they were promised and the benefits that they have earned.  We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America.  It’s a commitment that begins at enlistment,  and it must never end.  

But we know that for too long, we’ve fallen short of meeting that commitment. Too many wounded warriors go without the care that they need.  Too many veterans don’t receive the support that they’ve earned.  Too many who once wore our nation’s uniform now sleep in our nation’s streets.

Currently, there is no comprehensive system in place that allows for a streamlined transition of health records between DOD and the VA.  And that results in extraordinary hardship for a [sic] awful lot of veterans, whoend up finding their records lost, unable to get their benefits processed in a timely fashion.  I can’t tell you how many stories that I heard during the course of the last several years, first as a United States senator and then as a candidate, about veterans who were finding it almost impossible to get the benefits that they had earned despite the fact that their disabilities or their needs were evident for all to see.

Ironically, those words may haunt Obama now because under his watch so many hundreds of thousands of decent patriots are suffering; some are even dying before they have ever seen their benefits checks. Granted, the backlog has been business as usual for quite some time. However, the backlog had been significantly reduced by around 100,000 claims under President Bush before left office, and that was despite the archaic paper-based system and American troops fighting overseas in the War on Terror since the attacks on 9/11. Yet, even after the troop withdrawal in Iraq and a bigger budget with more VA staff, the outstanding veterans’ claims reached an historically high level in 2012.

On April 26, 2012, sixty-seven senators sent a bipartisan plea to President Barack Obama which urged him to end the veteran’s benefits backlog through his “direct and public involvement” in fixing such an incredibly high backlog in disability claims:

After a decade of war, and despite the VA’s efforts to modernize, more than           600,000 veterans are still stuck in the VA’s disability claims backlog. While                   the average wait time for first time disability claims currently ranges between               316 and 327 days, veterans in certain parts of the country are waiting even longer – 681 days in Reno, 642 in New York, 625 in Pittsburgh, 619 in Los Angeles, 612 in Indianapolis, 586 in Houston, and 510 in Philadelphia. In the worst cases,         veterans have waited and continue to wait 800 days, 900 days, and even more than 1000 days for a disability claims decision from the VA.

In the last four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by over 2000%, despite a 40% increase in the VA’s budget. As a reminder, during this same time period, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however, this has not eliminated the backlog of claims. Solving this problem is critical for veterans of all generations.

In many ways, the President is extremely good at making promises, yet actions usually speak louder than words. As the Washington Times revealed after this Veteran’s Day, the number of pending benefits claims is around 700,000 with an average wait time of 300 days. According to VA public reports, the average wait time for the veteran, or spouse, or any dependent children to receive benefits is 273 days. Conversely, the examination of internal VA data shows veterans who file their first claim have to wait about two more months to between 316 and 327 days according to the Senator’s figures. And sadly, for those veterans living in larger metropolitan areas, the wait is nearly two times longer.

This is a horrific tragedy, yet far too few Americans are even aware of this scandal. Obama, the candidate, found it easy to identify the problem, and easy to promise that he would fix the “broken VA bureaucracy.” However, the truth is quite the opposite. Even in last Monday’s Veterans Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama was again delivering a “have-to-do” mantra:

“We make sure we have the best-led, best-trained, best-equipped military in the world,” he declared while standing in the “sacred space” of Arlington’s graves.

”We have to devote just as much energy and passion to making sure we have the best-cared for, best-treated, best-respected veterans in the world…”

Such words do make sense to most Americans; yet such words ring hollow in light of the VA ineptitude. The simple truth is that the energy and passion required to solve the VA backlog may involve more than obvious observations in flowery speeches. The Washington Times article provided a startling revelation that:

“in 1997, the VA had about 5,000 field employees, each of whom was able to process about  135 claims per year, according to department budget submissions and Government Accountability Office reports. In 2012, the VA has about three times as many field employees, each accomplishing only about half the work and processing an estimated 73 claims per year.”

In reality, the patriots and families who often depend on such benefit payments for basic needs are more than mere statistics. These Americans face very real economic problems each day they do not receive their benefits. Reports indicate that some become homeless without their benefits and a substantial support system; some die before they get their benefits. Some have been known to commit suicide out of sheer hopelessness. Mere words do not solve the very real problems of patriots who volunteered to serve this nation in a time of global turmoil. Those who deserve the nation’s gratitude often become trapped in a system of bureaucratic ineptitude.

Ironically, such ineptitude revealed in a local neighborhood medical clinic would probably warrant a government investigation and likely closure of the facility. Unfortunately, the backlog of benefits for the nation’s veterans is more frightening than one may initially realize. Many Americans may not realize that the VA represents the largest integrated health care system in the nation. In one way, it can be viewed as a model of a much larger is indeed a tragedy.

The way the Obama Administration has handled the mess involving the largest integrated health care system in the nation is indeed a tragedy. Yet, with the advent of Obamacare, citizens within the U.S., in a very short time, may have to deal with many of the same issues that the veterans are being forced to deal with right now.

The fundamental premise of Obamacare is that the federal government is more capable than the private sector in handling the health insurance claims and real medical needs of the nation. Another simplistic recognition of the problem of health insurance and flowery “have-to” speeches are no guarantee that Obama’s Administration is capable of “fixing” the myriad of problems in the way health care is administered in the U.S. If the current history of the administration’s efforts at “fixing” the VA backlog is any indication of competency, people in America are in for a long and literally painful ordeal. The problems with the Obamacare website will seem quite rudimentary based upon such an abysmal track record. 


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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