Roost on VA: Not making our veterans a priority is poor leadership

Amy Roost
Amy Roost

By Amy Roost

I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theorist, however, it has gotten to the point where there must something more than what meets the eye going on at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Current VA claims surpassed 900,000 cases earlier this year, and with 34,000 troops soon returning from Afghanistan that number is expected to grow. In the fiscal year that ended in September 2011, the agency paid $437 million in retroactive benefits to the survivors of nearly 19,500 veterans who died waiting, a figure that represents a dramatic increase from three years earlier.

The number of claims being submitted should have been predictable enough after two wars both exceeding a decade and resulting in 5,000 American deaths and over 50,000 wounded. Add to those statistics the long overdue improved regulations making it easier for veterans suffering from PTSD and the effects of Agent Orange exposure to get the support they need, and anyone with a calculator could have predicted an enormous increase in claims.

Part of the reason we failed to see this crisis coming was there was some faulty (read hubristic) assumptions made by the previous administration about both wars. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thought the Iraq war wouldn’t last longer than six months, Vice President Dick Cheney predicted the war would last a matter of weeks, and President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” 10 years prematurely. The Bush administration didn’t give much thought to an exit strategy in either Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone a plan for how the country would pay to care for our wounded veterans and the ravaged families of those who were killed in combat.

The VA estimates the tab for treating new PTSD and Agent Orange cases alone will be $45 billion over the next decade. That doesn’t include your garden variety disability claims. This price tag during tough economic times is the main reason the VA is dragging its feet on claims. Not the reason so often cited, i.e. because the department doesn’t have the technology or man power to do so.

Another overlooked reason for the backlog is that just as laws are meant to be broken, insurance claims are meant to be denied. “Boy-oh-boy! My insurance claim was approved quickly!” said no insured person, ever. The insurance industry lives by the motto “Delay! Don’t pay! Until they go away!” Add a bureaucratic overlay and you begin to understand why veterans are so frustrated that some don’t even bother to file claims.

I’ve learned the hard way how insurance company bean counters depend on frustration and attrition to keep costs down. Only a small percentage of claimants will appeal an insurer’s decision once; an even smaller percentage will appeal again and again. I literally tricked one insurer into allowing me to take my son to see an out-of-network specialist (one of only two in the world) for a rare brain malformation. Fortunately, my next door neighbor was in senior management for a different insurance company and advised me every step along the way. Finally, after multiple appeals, and months of waiting and watching my son suffer, our claim was approved.

The Obama administration and the several that came before it (the past six VA secretaries have promised to fix the backlog problem) have demonstrated a lack of leadership by not making our veterans a priority. Meanwhile Congress spends most of its time debating issues like abortion, contraception, and sodomy instead of appropriating funds to take care of those who fought for our country.

If we can blithely sacrifice the lives of 5,000 American soldiers, then we damn well better provide their families and those lucky enough to return from war what was promised them when they agreed to serve. For our government not to do so is shameful and borders on willful malfeasance.

Roost works in the book publishing industry.

   
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