Dallas Morning News- Texas’ shameful backlog on VA disability claims

Dallas Morning News- Texas’ shameful backlog on VA disability claims

Next month will mark the 11th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. By year’s end, the last troops are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan. America will have spent more than a decade at war. Whether a veteran returned in 2011 or got home today, our nation made a sacred promise that must be kept. But the reality is that too often, it is not. Our nation still has much work to do to support and empower a generation of returning warriors.

This week’s George W. Bush Institute summit concerning post-9/11 veterans, which is being held at the Bush Center in University Park, is a historic moment to change the trajectory of veterans’ support forever. It’s a call to action that will redraw our nation’s attention to service members and the challenges they face transitioning home, and unite an unprecedented group of nonprofits, businesses and government leaders to ensure the promise is kept.

As I participate in this summit, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, I will often think of the number 400,000. It’s a number that shows how far our country still has to go before it can truly claim it supports the troops. That’s the shameful number of veterans stuck in the Veterans Affairs disability claims backlog nationwide, waiting more than 125 days for answers to their claims.

If we truly are supporting veterans, that number should be zero.

Here in Texas, the numbers are pathetic. The Houston Regional Office has 17,400 veterans in the backlog, and the Waco Regional Office has 13,700. Out of 57 regional offices nationally, the Texas offices are 2 of the 6 worst in terms of backlogged claims.

The average wait time is 177 days in Houston and 149 days in Waco, both well above the national average.

Of course, this is about more than numbers. This isn’t about 400,000 files stacked up, waiting for action from the VA. This is about 400,000 Americans whose lives are on hold, waiting for a broken-down system to be fixed.

This is about veterans like Roxanne Mojica, an Army veteran living in San Antonio whose story is featured at TheWaitWeCarry.org, which our organization created to show the human cost of this government failure. Roxanne enlisted in 2008 and left the military in January 2013 after a deployment to Afghanistan. She submitted her claim a year ago for post-traumatic stress disorder and neck, shoulder and knee injuries. The one-year wait has added tremendous financial and emotional strain to her and her family. It didn’t have to be that way.

Public pressure from the veterans community led the VA to make overdue reforms that have reduced the backlog by 36 percent since March. Yet, progress has stalled and the number of veterans in the backlog has hovered around 400,000 for the past couple months. Last week it stood at 401,246.

Celebrating getting the backlog to 400,000 would be like the Cowboys celebrating losing by 28 points instead of 40. The VA is doing a little better, but nobody in Washington should be spiking the football.

Last month, our group released a comprehensive examination of what caused the backlog and suggested a road map to eliminate it and make sure no vets are forced to wait again. Our report found shortcomings in the backlog effort and recommended common-sense actions the government should take, including:

Standardize VA claims forms, as the variance of forms slows down processing.

Create an interoperable system between Department of Defense and VA, which, amazingly, still does not exist.

Incentivize rating quality, not just quantity, to reduce accuracy errors that contribute to the growing appeals backlog.

2014 is the year America is likely to end its war in Afghanistan, but the battle to support our veterans is just beginning.

Veterans returning home face issues like mental health challenges, high unemployment and a sense of isolation — all of which we are discussing at this important summit. It’s time for our entire nation to double down on efforts to help our veterans. 


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