By Rep. Tom Graves
I recently held a Veterans Benefits Fair at Berry College where we afforded veterans and their families the opportunity to learn about the benefits they've earned and meet privately with representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The regional VA representatives who worked the fair were knowledgeable and helpful, and it's obvious they care deeply about the people they serve. I plan to work with them again to host similar events in the future. Although it was a good day, as I spoke with the heroes from our congressional district, I heard a lot about the deep and disturbing problem gripping veterans across the nation: the massive VA backlog.
Despite having their budget increased by over 40 percent since 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs has left hundreds of thousands of our veterans waiting for the care and services they have earned and deserve. Pending claims for benefits with the VA have increased from 391,000 to 890,000 under the Obama Administration. About 70 percent of the claims have been pending for at least four months, if not for years. San Francisco's Bay Citizen reported that 19,500 veterans died while waiting for their claims to be processed in fiscal year 2012. Making matters worse, the VA is still operating in the last century as it struggles to transition from paper files to an electronic system.
This backlog--leaving hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting in line for payments and services--is simply immoral.
I could point to the headstones at Arlington Cemetery, the countless stories of heroism from WWII to Afghanistan, the sons and daughters of Georgia who bear the scars of service on their minds and bodies, and the military families who live through and with it all. But, we know these things, and that is why the backlog is immoral. We all know about our veterans' sacrifices, and yet our country has still failed them on a scale of such magnitude.
The veterans, their families and the taxpayers who fund the VA deserve action. To date, the VA's response to this crisis has been to announce a plan to process veterans' claims in 125 days or less by the end of year 2015, with 98 percent accuracy. They've aimed for 125 days because claims that take longer are considered "backlogged." That means, by the VA's definition, they will "eliminate" the backlog even as veterans still wait at least four months for a claim to be processed. Even then, an initial claim might be denied and it could take a veteran months or years for an appeal to be processed. Our veterans deserve far better than such a low standard.
If we ask our troops to rush into battle, we must not then ask them to wait for their medical and disability claims. I challenge Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to set a higher standard and cut the wait time to 30 days. Our veterans deserve to have the peace of mind that their claim will be processed in a month's time, and not a day longer. Some might say such a standard is impossible or unattainable, but consider this: we depend on our service members to do extraordinary things for us, so shouldn't we seek to do the same for them?
Additionally, I'm announcing my support for the Veterans Timely Access To Health Care Act (H.R. 241), which would ensure that veterans seeking primary or specialty care with a VA medical center receive an appointment not later than 30 days from their initial request.
It's also time to think outside the box when it comes to fixing the VA. In a digital age, they are under a crush of paper files--literally. An inspector general report on the Winston-Salem VA office found that 37,000 claims folders were stacked on top of file cabinets. The August 2012 report said, "The excess weight of the stored files has the potential to compromise the structural integrity of the sixth floor of the facility." The VA has spent hundreds of millions dollars to transition to paperless claims processing, called the Veterans Benefits Management System, but a February 2013 report from the VA Inspector General spelled out in stark terms that the program has made little progress.
Why don't we ask tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook to help? Our veterans deserve the best system, and it makes sense to ask some of the most innovative companies of our time to either collaborate, or bid for a contract, to create a paperless claims system of ease and efficiency for veterans and the employees at the VA.
We must aim higher for our heroes. The Department's goal of improving from a failing grade to a C- is unacceptable. It's long past time to set standards and build a system that truly shows we are a grateful nation for the service and sacrifices of our veterans and their families.