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VA Faces Two Crises: Mental Health and Disability Claims

 

Veteran Mike Grabski

An extensive news investigation by Bay Citizen reporter Aaron Glantz delved into the serious problems facing our Veterans seeking disability benefits in northern California. At the law firm of Bergmann & Moore, every day we hear from Veterans complaining about unreasonable delays and denials by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The reality on the ground shows VA faces two major crises.

First, an internal VA audit released last week revealed a staggering 51 percent of Veterans waited more than 14 days for a mental health evaluation.  VA’s delays have dire consequences: 18 Veterans commit suicide every day.  VA had misled Congress, reporting only five percent of Veterans waited longer than 14 days.   An April 25, 2011, editorial in The New York Times highlighted how VA doesn’t get it when it comes to providing prompt and high-quality mental healthcare to our Veterans.

VA’s second significant crisis is an inventory of more than 900,000 pending disability compensation cases nationwide.  Veterans now wait an average of seven months for an initial VA claim decision.  In Oakland, more than 35,000 Veterans are waiting an average of nearly 11 months for a claim decision.  That’s seven months longer than VA’s goal of four months. 

Even worse, VA takes an average of five years to process an additional inventory of more than 250,000 appealed disability cases sitting in Washington, DC.  Fixing VA is vital because Veterans need approved disability claims to pay rent and feed their families.  An approved claim often opens the door to urgently needed free VA medical care.  Nationwide, more than 1.1 million Veterans and their families are waiting on a besieged VA.

The future appears ominous.  VA estimates another 1.2 million new claims will flood into VA this year, many from veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury caused by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.  Every month, nearly 10,000 new disability claims are filed by Veterans returning home from the current conflicts, a trend expected for at least the next five years.

The crisis deepens when VA misinforms Veterans and Congress.  For example, VA gives Congress the impression the agency is trying to reduce claim wait times.  However, VA merely shifted staff from working on older appealed claims to working on newer claims.  VA’s disastrous shift causes VA to make more mistakes, creating even more appeals that further clog up an already overwhelmed VA.

Similar to VA’s dubious reports about wait times for mental healthcare, no one really knows for sure how long Veterans wait for benefits and how many mistakes VA makes. All we truly know is the situation keeps getting worse, especially in Oakland.  On April 18, I testified before Congress that VA’s Oakland office may be grinding to a halt.

Shining a spotlight on VA helps.  Fortunately for our Veterans, VA now promises more training and oversight for Oakland.   And on May 21, several members of California’s Congressional delegation are set to meet with the leader of VA’s Oakland office.  Let’s hope the meeting publicizes the facts and finds solutions for our Veterans. 

Hopefully, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Congress will “get it” soon and fix VA’s understaffed mental healthcare facilities and VA’s delay and error-prone disability claims system.  Otherwise, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may do it for them.

Sincerely,

Paul Sullivan

Managing Director

Public Affairs & Veteran Outreach

Bergmann & Moore, LLC

Bethesda, Maryland

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