WASHINGTON, DC—In what is becoming an annual ritual, the House VA Committee invited dozens of veterans service organizations for a roundtable discussion on their legislative priorities. Topping the list was the growing backlog of disability claims, recently projected at one million. However, much discussion also centered around stalled attempts by Congress to improve veterans caregivers’ benefits, the reliance of VA on outdated technology, and the lack of accountability on where money is being spent.
The Claims Backlog Grows
“I have become exhausted over the years talking about the disability backlog,” declared Rep Steve Buyer, R-IN, ranking Republican on the committee, at the outset of the hearing. “But disability claims continue to accrue. What good is a benefit if we can’t deliver it?” And VA claims officials are now being further pressed by veterans seeking benefits under the new GI Bill, which is designed to provide extensive educational funding for veterans.
Recommendations from VSOs went so far as proposing a fourth administrative office within the VA dedicated to veteran education, which would take over administration of the GI Bill benefits, leaving VBA free to handle disability claims. However, most of the recommendations involved streamlining the current system. “Veterans of Iraq andAfghanistan are applying for benefits from systems that were outdated years before many of us were born,” declared Tom Tarantino, legislative associate of Iraq andAfghanistan Veterans ofAmerica. “With the backlog that is ever-skyrocketing, we are recommending a new processing system—a system that digitally processes records. We also wish to remove unnecessary steps in the claims processing system, so the benefits are timely and meaningful.”
Another suggestion was to put VBA claims officials in VHA clinics, to expedite claims filing and the setting up of initial exams. Also, one way to make sure that National Guard veterans do not slip through the cracks is to screen them at their place of redeployment. “If a service connection is not established immediately for injuries, it puts them in a hole if they later apply for disability from VA,” explained Peter Duffy, National Guard Association deputy director.
Legislation, Oversight and Accountability
Frustrating many VSOs is the inability of Congress to pass an omnibus health care bill that includes benefits for veteran caregivers. Both the House and Senate have passed such a bill; however, the two pieces of legislation still need to be reconciled.
“Our highest priority continues to be comprehensive assistance for caregivers of wounded veterans,” declared Ralph Ibson of the Wounded Warrior Project. He called a letter to Congress signed by a number of VSOs urging swift passage of the legislation, “not an admonishment, but a vote of confidence in this committee and its leadership and is staff to reconcile the House and Senate caregiver provisions.”
But new benefits and funding is only as good as the VA’s ability to administer those benefits, pointed out Vietnam Veterans of America president John Rowan. “Congress has generously given VA a lot of money over the last several years, and that money has to be accounted for,” Rowan said. “It needs to be spent appropriately and correctly. Are those programs being implemented and is that money going to where they say it is?”
Matt Cary, director of Veterans and Military Families for Progress, seconded Rowan’s concern, dubious that VA could carry out every provision without oversight. “Unless you keep watch on federal agencies that will be implementing a lot of this, we’re going to have a problem,” Cary declared. “You might want to consider a task force of VSOs for watching the implementation of all these public laws.”
Rep Tim Walz, D-MN, agreed that Congress needed better oversight of VA to judge how funding is being spent, noting that without accountability, the efficacy of VA programs cannot be judged. “Nothing will stop us in our tracks faster than evidence of waste.”
Mental Health, Toxic Exposure
Despite years of ramping up funding for mental health care, many VSOs expressed concern that VA and DoD were still not doing enough to address what is becoming one of the defining health concerns of veterans. They pointed out that, despite impressive efforts to prevent suicide, last year the number of veterans committing suicide rose. “We need to declare war on mental health stigma,” declared IAVA’s Tarantino. “More veterans were killed by suicide than by combat last year. We need to increase outreach efforts by DoD and VA.”
One growing and potentially vulnerable population are the veterans finding their way onto college campuses, explained Brian Hawthorne, legislative director of Student Veterans of America, presenting that organization’s priorities to Congress for the first time. The GI Bill provisions ensure that colleges will begin to see more and more recent veterans. However, college health professionals are not trained to deal with the problems specifically facing returning veterans.
“Education can be a solution to many of the issues our veterans face today, including mental health, unemployment, and homelessness,” Hawthorne noted. “However, mental health resources on college campuses are woefully unaware of veterans issues. While that may be the first line of defense for student veterans, they know nothing of military service and the issues we face coming home.”
Both VVA and Veterans of Modern Warfare urged more attention be paid to the effects of toxic exposure on veterans. “Toxic exposure is a reality of war these days,” explained VMW’s Donald Overton. “And we have a whole generation of [Gulf War-era] veterans being lost in the shuffle. It’s about proper treatment and research into understanding what the effects of these exposures [are].”
Rowan stressed that toxic exposure is not just a concern of Gulf War veterans, but of Vietnam-era veterans and those serving today. “Toxic exposure is really the whole crux here. Toxic exposure has killed more than bombs and bullets. And we still see lots of veterans with concerns about what they’re exposed to,” Rowan declared. “There needs to be a Comprehensive Veterans Toxic Exposures Act of 2010—a comprehensive look at exposures of all veterans since Vietnam.