OPINION | Lonesome Valley: Veterans Administration struggles to make ends meet


With retirement coming up, I’ve been reflecting on my years of work, especially the last 14, which I’ve spent helping veterans with their VA claims.

It’s in this job that I’ve been able to use all of my ingenuity, my writing skills, and my curiosity, and have truly found my niche. It has given me a chance to make a difference, sometimes a significant one, in people’s lives. But I have also had the unsettling experience of working beside–almost INSIDE–a large federal agency.

You hear things on the news, but the average person has no idea what goes on inside the VA. Are other federal agencies run this way, especially those on which our livelihoods, and our lives, depend? But the problems are not entirely the VA’s fault.

The law that governs VA, Title 38 U.S. Code, is essentially benevolent. Congress has mandated that the process will be non-adversarial, and VA is supposed to grant benefits whenever the evidence, for and against, is equal. But the legal requirements are very, very complicated, and they change frequently. In order to comply with them fully, the VA would need many more employees. In this age of sequesters and budget deficits, that is unlikely to happen.

VA employees who decide the claims are supposed to read every document in the files, including faded, hand-written medical records and scrawled notes from veterans. They have to know medical terminology, relationships between one condition and another, and side effects of various medications. They have to know a lot about the various wars, including locations, dates, and climatic conditions, as well as the general circumstances of peacetime service in various locations. They have to weigh much conflicting evidence. Most importantly, they have to stay abreast of the law. Most VA employees work on strict quotas, and if they fall short, they can be demoted or even fired. Thus they must work fast, as well as carefully.

The claim of a soldier shot in battle, who still bears scars, is easy to decide. But seldom are VA claims so black and white. Even the most far-fetched claim is supposed to receive the same consideration as that of the combat-wounded vet.

The VA does its best to meet all of these requirements, but it is simply impossible, given the volume. A lot of corners get cut.

This can happen in ways that the average veteran doesn’t notice. A VA exam meant to take an hour is done in 15 minutes, because of the workload. A doctor reads only part of the file, missing something important. A rater cuts his research short to meet quota. Small shortcuts seem harmless, but cause premature denials, which lead to more appeals. That increases the workload in the end, and veterans wait even longer.

The VA’s backlog often makes news. Veterans sometimes do die waiting. Unfortunately, pressure to clean up the backlog causes VA to quickly rate its oldest cases. How? There wasn’t enough staff to begin with. The answer is, by denying without proper review. If veterans appeal, the clock resets. VA has kicked the can down the road.

What can be done about it? Call your representatives in Congress. Tell them that quick denials are NOT the way to end VA’s backlog. Encourage them to staff the VA sufficiently to do the work right. Meanwhile, if you file a claim, you have responsibilities, too. Get people to write letters for you. Send the VA the evidence it asks for. This can head off premature denial. If you’ve already been denied, consider appealing.

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