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Big government vs our veterans

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The scandal at the Department of Veteran Affairs is widening beyond first reports of misconduct at the Phoenix VA hospital. Reports and leaked memos now indicate that the the problems in the VA are rampant, institutionalized and nationwide.

But, our veterans begin the VA's bureaucratic run-around long before they arrive at the hospital. From the moment they leave the service, our heroes face a mountain of red tape, bureaucratic snafus and an army of government employees that are out for themselves at the expense of the veteran.

When the VA talks about working to resolve the backlog of veterans' "claims" there is an assumption that one veteran = one claim. That is not accurate at all.

A month ago, allegations came to light that veterans at the Phoenix, AZ veterans' hospital were put on a secret list waiting for medical care. More than 40 veterans died while languishing on this list.

The list was kept secret to hide the veterans' wait times. The VA decided that given a choice between allowing the veterans to die or damaging their statistics with long wait times, they'd rather have the veterans die.

"The time is now. The place is Phoenix, Arizona where a message needs to be sent loud and clear to VA administrators and bureaucrats alike that the murder of our veterans for cash bonuses and career advancement will no longer be tolerated," wrote Dr. Samuel Foote, who retired after spending nearly 25 years with the VA.

Foote later took his claims to the media, then to Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, who announced the allegations at an April hearing.

Foote says up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix hospital and that staff, at the instruction of administrators, kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care. He believes administrators kept the off-the-books list to impress their bosses and get bonuses.

"If you died on that list, they could just cross your name off and there was no trace that you'd ever been to the Phoenix VA," Foote told The Associated Press. "As if you never existed. You're just gone."

But, as this scandal widens, reports are coming out that these conditions persist in 26 VA medical facilities nationwide, suggesting an institutional problem within the VA.

It is the entire system within the VA that is the problem. As a retired US Army officer with 24 years of service and with combat related disabilities, I can tell you first hand how the system works.

The bureaucrats and employees at the VA are credited by the number of cases they resolve. While veterans waited longer than ever in recent years for their wartime disability compensation, the Department of Veterans Affairs gave its workers millions of dollars in bonuses for “excellent” performances that effectively encouraged them to avoid claims that needed extra work to document veterans’ injuries, a News21 investigation has found.

In 2011, a year in which the claims backlog ballooned by 155 percent, more than two-thirds of claims processors shared $5.5 million in bonuses, according to salary data from the Office of Personnel Management.

The more complex claims were often set aside by workers so they could keep their jobs, meet performance standards or, in some cases, collect extra pay, said VA claims processors and union representatives. Those claims now make up much of the VA’s widely scrutinized disability claims backlog, defined by the agency as claims pending more than 125 days.

This does not translate into being credited by the number of veterans they actually help. So, instead of caring for the veteran, they instead do all they can to turn each veteran into as many individual cases as possible. This cumbersome and confusing process starts long before the veteran even enters a VA medical facility or attempts to receive medical care.

For example, when a service member leaves the service, they must submit a file to the Department of Veteran Affairs to determine if the veteran has any service related or combat related disabilities and to qualify to receive care at any VA medical facility. The veteran then begins a very long process at the hands of the VA. This includes a screening of the veterans medical records, a long battery of medical appointments and tests to determine their condition, determination of their service record, determination of whether their disabilities are service related or combat related, determination and verification of their dependents, determination and verification of whether the veteran is eligible for monthly disability compensation and determination of whether there is any retroactive compensation due to the veteran. Of course, there is an award of eligibility of the veteran to receive care at VA medical facilities.

Because the bureaucracy at the VA rewards employees not for the number of veterans assisted, but by the number of cases or claims that are resolved, each of these issues then become a separate and individual case by itself. So one veteran then becomes multiple cases. The VA's system takes months and months to resolve any one of these "cases." The result is that the veteran waits and waits for years as each of these cases take six months or longer to resolve.

The veterans' files are kept at any one of the VA's regional offices. These are paper files kept piled up on table tops. The bureaucrats at the VA will choose a paper file, go work on it and then return it to the stack. Once they "resolve" a case, the file goes to the back of the line until such time that the next VA bureaucrat picks up the paper file and work on the next case for the same veteran.

I retired from the Army after my 3rd tour in Iraq on 28 February 2010. I submitted my file and heard nothing for more than six months. Then, I began my first battery of medical screenings and appointments to determine the degree of combat related and service related disability I may have suffered while serving. Then I heard nothing for nearly two years. Next, I received notice that I had to begin the same tests and medical appointments for the same reason.

It was more than two years before the VA made the final determination of my combat and related disability. Now, another two years later, I still have not received my benefits. 51 months since leaving the service and counting. This is before I ever seek any medical treatment at any VA medical facility. I received a letter on 7 October 2012 stating that my case was complete and I can expect to receive my back benefits in approximately 15 days. I'm still waiting. My case is not at unusual.

At no time can the veteran reach out to or speak with any representative at their regional office. We are not allowed to know anyone's name that may be working on our file. The veterans are not allowed to follow their file and are never given even an estimate on how long the process may take before they may begin to receive the benefits owed to them.

There are a number of advocacy groups that fight the VA on behalf of the veterans. They include Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, and the group working on my behalf, the Military Order of the Purple Heart. These are terrific organizations that selflessly work on the behalf of the veterans and do all they can to push their files through the system. But, even these advocacy groups are at the mercy of the bureaucracy. They can only send emails and on occasion make a phone call and nag, but can't really impact the system and make the VA work any faster for the veteran.

Recently, I visited my local office of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and was told a story of a veteran in a much worse situation than mine. This particular veteran worked for years to have his injuries and disabilities even acknowledged by the VA. This veteran fought for years to receive the proper medical care from his service related disabilities. Sadly, he died while waiting for the VA. Now, it has been another 3 years while his widow is fighting to receive the survivor benefits due to her. This veteran served in the Korean War.

President Obama has mostly remained silent on this scandal. But, in a news conference on Wednesday, Obama stated "If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it. Period," Obama said during a hastily called press conference at the White House.

"I will not stand for it. Not as commander-in-chief, but also not as an American," he added. "None of us should."

However, we know now that the president knew about the problems at the VA even before he was sworn into office. VA officials briefed the Obama / Biden transition team they shouldn't trust the reported wait times and other data as reported.

In documents obtained by the Washington Times, a memo to the Obama transition team reported “This is not only a data integrity issue in which [Veterans Health Administration] reports unreliable performance data; it affects quality of care by delaying — and potentially denying — deserving veterans timely care,” the officials wrote.

Now that these conditions are public, Obama has directed the VA Secretary retired four-star general Eric Shinseki to conduct a thorough internal investigation into these charges. In addition, he also ordered White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to conduct a broader view of the VA system, with a full report due next month. Nabors is heading to Phoenix later Wednesday to meet with VA officials there.

So, as in the IRS scandal, the administration is investigating itself. The VA is investigating itself. So, if the veterans are expecting real changes and a substantive change in focus from the Department of Veteran Affairs, those are unlikely.

We as a nation should demand better treatment for our veterans.

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