It’s not enough

You want to know why so many veterans take their own lives, a good example is VA administration of claims. The news recently featured Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki explaining that the backlog in VA claims will be fixed by 2015. It should be pointed out that Secretary Shinseki promised “aggressive action” to deal with lagging claims three years ago when President Obama appointed him to the office. No one, myself included, is holding their breath over this, and, in fact, most veterans don’t believe it. First of all, finally digitizing records is not going to repair the huge number of botched claims that have caused denial of benefits for deserving veterans. I’m among that number. The simple truth is that significant problems have plagued the agency since its inception, so another promise of action simply doesn’t come with much credibility.

I find it difficult to complain about the VA. It has provided well for my medical needs. Administratively however, it’s been a frustrating cascade of disappointment and frustration. Here’s an example of how frustrating the claims system can be:  I married my wife on April 8, 2009. On April 9, 2009, I made a special trip to the VA Medical Center administrative offices to ask how to notify the VA of my nuptials. They explained that I needed to fill out a new financial resources form which included a change in marital status. I filled it out on the spot and turned it in along with a copy of the marriage license and waited for confirmation from the VA. And waited. A year later I called the Seattle Regional Administration office and asked on the status of my claim for dependency rights for my spouse. They asked “what dependency rights?” I explained the situation and said that I had filled out and submitted the form and license. Their reply was that I may have done that, but I hadn’t informed them of my marriage. I asked what the process for that was and they replied I needed to fill out a financial resources form; the very same form I had already filled out. So I submitted another form and began an odyssey of frustration that culminated in them denying my wife her dependent benefits on March 13, 2013. For the past three years they VA would send me forms which I would complete and return, that asked me about former marriages (and even girlfriends). I would respond and then wait for months to hear back, only to be given yet another form or asked for more information. They could take up to a year to respond to me, yet I had to respond to them within 30 days. They finally asked me for proof of divorce from my previous wife and I had to send a request to Sacramento, California to get it. It took them five weeks to respond and I immediately forwarded it to the VA when I got it. A few weeks ago I received a notice denying my wife’s claim on the basis of non-compliance, stating that I had refused to provide requested information in support of my claim. I replied by overnight UPS delivery of a copy of my letter and the documentation they had asked for, demonstrating that I had indeed responded –but they apparently mislaid it. Of course, the responsibility for that belongs to the veteran. In the future I will send everything via FedEx of UPS and demand a receipt signature, using their supplied postal mail envelopes simply allows them to be careless with submitted materials with impunity while the veteran pays the price. So from now on, nothing gets submitted without their being a clear and provable delivery. Veterans fight an assumption of denial. Instead of focusing on getting a veteran the needed benefits and then verifying the validity of their actions, much as most social services agencies do, the VA spends its time (in my case, four years) trying their best to discredit the claims, and often succeeding in their denials by virtue of policies geared towards a denial rather than approval. They exist in an environment of mistrust and reticence.

You have to wonder just how many cases of abuse like this exist, and how many of them are responsible for being the straw that broke the camel’s back and result in the death of a veteran. How many spouses are kicked to the curb resulting in their lives turning into wreckage unnecessarily because of the VA’s poor administrative system? The thing is, the problem is not agency wide. The Specially Adapted Housing and Specially Adapted Vehicle departments work with a very timely flow, and never seem to misplace any forms or exhibits in spite of the fact that they fly back and forth through the mail, email, faxing and telephone calls. The various medical facilities handle a much larger volume of information and records for an equal number of veterans, yet they don’t seem to have the same gosh darn bad luck that the administration side does.

Now, I have said in my blog that the number of veterans requiring assistance and filing claims is staggeringly large and growing, what with the increasing return of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. I have tried to give them some slack and moral support acknowledging the load they carry. But comes a time when action, not words are necessary. To Secretary Shinseki’s comments I have this to say: In 1989 the company I worked for suffered a catastrophic hardware failure that destroyed over a million records of software bug fixes, instructions and installation matrices for its banking platform products. The company hired a large group of temporary clerk-typists and entered every one of those records back into the system in a period of 90 days. The survival of the company’s products was at stake. That was before the dot-com explosion of computers and a time when record transfers didn’t have the open field of data transfer we enjoy today. To Secretary Shinseki I say that if the VA needs to fix the system that instead of taking meetings and offering sound-bite excuses to the media, he should have the VA hire a temporary force of workers and put the backlog behind them so desperately needy veterans can get the benefits they earned and deserve. At least temporarily, suspend the ridiculous compartmentalization that prevents the government’s left hand from seeing the contents of its right. Consider the data that companies like UPS, FedEx and others maintain; it dwarfs what the VA deals with. Yet these companies can, in a matter of seconds, track every step of a package or letter they carried decades ago. That’s because while maintaining security and privacy, the companies take their stewardship of records seriously and deal with their data professionally. There’s no excuse for the VA to be ill-equipped and understaffed.

Veterans are not statistics. They are people. People who wrote a check for an insurance policy against everything they had, right up to and including their lives. This isn’t drama, it’s real. Perhaps addressing the backlog of new claims by 2015 seems like a great accomplishment to Secretary Shinseki, but it’s not. It fails to address the thousands of veterans who have already been damaged and suffer as a result of a system that has been known more for its failures than successes. The VA offers excellent medical care and satisfactory support benefits. But that only matters if deserving veterans can access the benefits they’re due. Veterans are suffering and could be helped in a matter of days, not months or years. All it takes is the government deciding to take action and then executing the decision. It only took them a matter of hours to bail out an undeserving financial industry, shouldn’t deserving veterans enjoy even a fraction of that priority?

The VA has steadily been making “improvements” to its system. Sadly, most of those inflict hardship rather than improvements. Where it was that veterans sent to a distant VA facility were given travel money in advance, the system has changed to paying the vet’s travel at the destination. Now it has degenerated into a reimbursement system that takes weeks or longer to get the vets paid. Some veterans are failing to go to the necessary appointments because they simply don’t have the money to front the travel expense. Again, another administrative snafu. While veterans are desperately needing services, administration is spending its time debating the pros and cons of allowing VA employees to use their own digital devices to enhance their providing assistance to vets. Certainly there can be privacy issues if data is stored on the devices, but there is really no reason for that. All data can remain locked up in a private ‘cloud’ that is security certificate and password locked with read-only access.

The VA seems to be more interested in finding reasons not to do things rather than really addressing their mandate of servicing veterans. As long as the future holds meetings and fret sessions rather than decisive action, assurances of improvement by 2015 are going to continue to be meaningless, just as Secretary Shinseki’s are.