The aftermath of Lawsuits Against the VA – Part Two

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logo_wshadow_01 As mentioned in my previous article, way back in July 2007, two Veterans Advocate organizations Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth (VUFT) filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs. About 16 months after, two additional VSOs filed a law suit that was more encompassing. It too would be thrown out by a federal judge to now be in Appeal. It these lawsuits accomplished nothing else; it brought media focus on just how shameful the American government was and continues to treat America’s Veterans. Some of these Veterans groups despite their non-partisan political charters and de17_01sign will be labeled partisan cronies of the Democratic Party, however those that remain truly non-partisan continue to appeal, expose Congressional mismanagement of the VA, mismanagement within the VA system, and the systemic problems of the VA. At least one, Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) is working closely with attorney organizers to increase the number of attorneys available to America’s Veterans. I know from personal experience here in Ohio that finding a VA certified attorney very difficult to do. We need to turn this around, so that more Veterans have access to an attorney without having to go through an Old Guard VSO to get to one.

Robert L. Hanafin
Major, USAF-Retired
Editorial Board of Directors
VT News Network
      Dateline – November 10, 2008, two additional Veterans activists groups representing thousands of American veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and Veterans of Modern Warfare (VMW), announced that they have also filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The lawsuit, sought to end the unconscionable delays experienced by veterans when applying for disability benefits. VVA and VMW sought immediate action to prevent further irreparable harm to our nation’s veterans. The lawsuit demanded that the VA provide an initial decision on every veteran’s claim for disability benefits within 90 days and resolve appeals within 180 days.
veteransday What the lawsuit failed to address was timeframes in which the VA was required to submit forms and documentation to America’s Veterans. As of today, every VA rule, regulation, and law defines timelines that are expected of Veterans to submit the appropriate VA forms, or respond to the VA or the Vets Claim or Appeal is denied. However, nowhere in any documentation, operations manual, or VA directives are there defined timelines in which VA management and employees are expected to respond to the Veterans they supposedly serve. Example: We all know that Veterans must respond to a Statement of the Case within a certain timeframe or the case will either be dropped or proceed as is. However, there’s no expressed timeframe in which the VA is expected to send a Statement of the Case to a Veteran. This means that in the delaying process the VA can delay as long as it wants in sending a Veteran a Statement of the Case, I’ve know where Vets have received notice that a Statement of Case is being prepared and two months or more go by without access to the VA Appeal process. This is something that only Congress and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs can change and must CHANGE.

The VA not only must be held accountable for mistakes it makes on claims and appeals, but senior level management at the VA, plus the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees must direct adjudicators that VA employees are required to respond to Veterans within set timeframes or the case is immediately approved for VA failure to comply. The veterans groups did ask that the Court grant further relief in the form of interim benefits awards in the event that the VA exceeds these minimum standards of constitutionally-guaranteed due process. These interim benefits will provide veterans with a lifeline of support when it is most needed to facilitate reintegration into their lives back home.

"The failure to expedite veterans’ compensation claims creates, at best, the impression that the nation does not respect its veterans," said John Rowan, National President, Vietnam Veterans of America. "America’s veterans deserve more, and the VA’s failure to fulfill its responsibilities brings dishonor to our nation and can only make the call of military service more challenging."Frankly, despite small advances (not changes but advances) I would say that "the impression that the nation does not respect its veterans" is just as valid today as it was when John Rowan stated this back in November 2008.

The VA acknowledges that it takes an average of at least six months to reach an initial decision on an average benefits claim; the actual delay is closer to a year. Appeals of these initial decisions, which are reversed more than 50 percent of the time, take, on average, more than four years, with some stretching 10 years or more. In contrast, private healthcare plans – which process more than 30 billion claims a year – process claims and

"As a matter of both policy and practice, the VA subjects veterans to long delays before receiving any of the benefits to which they are entitled," said Donald Overton, Executive Director, Veterans of Modern Warfare. "Our hope is that this lawsuit will compel the VA to process veterans’ benefits claims more quickly and honor our nation’s commitment to those that have defended and served." Once again, I say that Don Overton’s concerns are just as valid today as back in November 2008.

mail_pile At the time these lawsuits were filed, there were approximately 25 million veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces alive. More than 7 million of those veterans enrolled in the VA’s healthcare system, and approximately 3.4 million veterans receive benefits. More than 600,000 VA benefits claims are backlogged – this number will only increase as the 1.7 million troops that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to return home. That made it glaringly clear the vast majority of America’s Veterans were not aware of the benefits they had earned by their service to the nation – a service that most American citizens refuse to share the burden for today.

"A soldier’s transition to civilian life is challenging. The VA’s failure to diagnose PTSD promptly and accurately, and the corresponding delay in the award of benefits, plainly results in veterans being denied this critical lifeline," said Dr. Charles R. Figley, PTSD expert and author, of Tulane University. "VVA and VMW’s lawsuit will help to reduce this additional and, in many cases, unmanageable stress for veterans."

It is no secret to VT that VA mismanagement, fraud, waste, and abuse did not happen overnight, thus the Obama administration cannot fix it overnight. In fact, President Bush was briefed as early as 2001 that in order to handle a growing backlog of claims, VA had repeatedly turned to hiring more and more employees. Between 1998 and 2001, nearly 2,000 people were hired to help process claims. Success, however, ultimately depended not on hiring new employees, but on the application of modern information tools and, most of all, the establishment of true organizational accountability.

In October 2001, Vice Admiral Daniel L. Cooper (retired), who led the 14-member Department of Veterans Affairs Claims Processing Task Force, presented a final report to VA. The report became part of President Bush’s 2003 budget proposal just as we entered the Iraq War. That 2001 report concluded that, as a result of basic flaws in organization and communication, VA is unable to handle the effects of judicial decisions and legislative changes on workload. Productivity is poor, and so far management has proven incapable of introducing change and flexibility into the workplace. Could the same be said to be true once General Eric Shinseki inherited the VA from General Peake? Most Veterans and military families today would say so, but pointing fingers does nothing the fix the systemic problems of the VA. I believe that what will work is a non-partisan approach as offered by Vice Admiral Cooper.

VA should concentrate on radically changing the way it does business. This is as true today or more so than it was way back in 2001. These changes include identifying practices that work best at VA and enforcing their use across the country; allocating both work and funds to the best regional offices; creating specialized processing centers; and developing a computer system that allows people throughout the country to work on individual claims at the same time.

The success of these initiatives must be measurable. Speed should not come at the sacrifice of accuracy, or vice versa. VA will use the following two critical performance measures to ensure that its efforts are balanced:

· Process disability compensation and pension claims in an average of 165 days in 2003 (ultimate goal is 74 days-given the legal and medical complexities and VA’s responsibility to help prepare claims); and

· Attain an 88 percent national accuracy rate for core rating work in 2003 (ultimate goal is 96 percent)

However, those were goals during Peacetime, and as the urgency of wartime dictates these lawsuits have demanded the VA do even better than 74 days to process a claim.

To deliver services quickly and effectively, it is just as important to establish a relationship between performance and resources, but VA has still not done this in 2009. The Department cannot, for example, say that for every $500,000 increase in funding, timeliness and accuracy improve by measurable percentages. Until relationships like these are defined, it is impossible to figure out the optimal amount of funding for veterans’ services. As the VA continues to remain mismanaged, irresponsible, and unaccountable even under Secretary Shinseki, young American veterans of our latest wars continue to commit suicide.

According to the VA, the suicide rate as of November 2008 among individuals in the VA’s care was as high as 7.5 times the national average. Delays in awarding benefits to America’s veterans increases the suffering of individuals already struggling with an inability to cope, as the seemingly endless wait for the VA to make a final decision on a claim magnifies the alienation and anxiety that they experience. For example, the inability to provide basic subsistence support significantly impacts a veteran’s ability to maintain economic stability, seek and gain employment, provide and sustain a home, or care for a family. As a consequence, there is a substantial increase in the number of broken families, cases of homelessness and depression caused by the failure to provide disability benefits on a timely basis.

In the meantime, many disabled veterans give up in despair or frustration, fall into drug or alcohol dependency, or commit suicide as the Department of Veterans Affairs still continues to wait them out. Even after claims have been approved, veterans face ongoing problems receiving care. There’s also been a trend among VA physicians and dentists to withhold medical and dental information from patients so that Veterans can make informed decisions about care. Because the demand for medical care and treatment by the VA has risen dramatically since the U.S. became involved in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA has long waiting lists and, in some cases, no appropriate treatment for disabled veterans is available. The real American SHAME as we approach the 4th of July is that today the administration and Congress continues to spend far more on National Defense and the war(s) ($ 700,705,000,000), Department of Commerce and Housing Credit [Bail Outs] ($694,439,000,000), Income Security [Not Social Security by Banking Security-more bail outs] ($520,123,000,000), Medicare [for most who choose not to serve in uniform] ($427,076,000,000), Department of Health [Veterans would have more federal budget clout if we were a subdivision of the U.S. Health Department] ($380,158,000,000), Department of Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services ($164,276,000,000), even fixing Americas infrastructure takes a higher priority – Department of Transportation ($122,457,000,000), than those of US who fight our CIVILIAN government’s wars – Department of Veterans Affairs ($97,705,000,000). The only priority that really benefits America’s Veterans – Social Security is even lower a priority than Veterans at ($31,820,000,000).

This is why I believe that we as Veterans should refuse to continue supporting the wars until we are given the RESPECT we deserve outside of parades, flag waving, and political patronizing even within the Veterans Community. When we are of value to the nation as a warrior class we are worth $ 700,705,000,000 as in the Defense budget and costs of future overseas military deployments, however when we are no longer of value or use as a warrior class we are only worth $97,705,000,000. What’s hypocritically WRONG with this picture regardless our ideological views on war, hell we are all proud members of the Warrior Class. The problem boils down to people making decisions about our lives who are NOT members of the Warrior Class. Am I advocating superiority of the warrior class as in militarism – NO, what I’m advocating is that if the Ruling class wants us to fight its battles for them, they have to both respect our class in monetary and actual terms not just rhetoric and photo ops. This to me has been the greatest FAILURE of the Old Guard VSOs; they fail to see that WE are a Warrior Class. They of course desire us to be proud of our service, but not proud of our class. Until we realize that we are a warrior class, and until we demand respect and entitlements to do what the vast majority of Americans refuse to do – the systematic problems of the VA will continue, because mark my words everyone involved in Veterans Affairs from the Congress, to the President, right down to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and VA rank and file knows we are a warrior class. Some treat us with dignity and respect while the vast majority distain us as welfare cases. As a proud member of the Warrior Class, we are NOT welfare cases.

Robert L. Hanafin
Major, USAF-Retired
Editorial Board of Directors
VT News Network

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Readers are more than welcome to use the articles I've posted on Veterans Today, I've had to take a break from VT as Veterans Issues and Peace Activism Editor and staff writer due to personal medical reasons in our military family that take away too much time needed to properly express future stories or respond to readers in a timely manner. My association with VT since its founding in 2004 has been a very rewarding experience for me. Retired from both the Air Force and Civil Service. Went in the regular Army at 17 during Vietnam (1968), stayed in the Army Reserve to complete my eight year commitment in 1976. Served in Air Defense Artillery, and a Mechanized Infantry Division (4MID) at Fort Carson, Co. Used the GI Bill to go to college, worked full time at the VA, and non-scholarship Air Force 2-Year ROTC program for prior service military. Commissioned in the Air Force in 1977. Served as a Military Intelligence Officer from 1977 to 1994. Upon retirement I entered retail drugstore management training with Safeway Drugs Stores in California. Retail Sales Management was not my cup of tea, so I applied my former U.S. Civil Service status with the VA to get my foot in the door at the Justice Department, and later Department of the Navy retiring with disability from the Civil Service in 2000. I've been with Veterans Today since the site originated. I'm now on the Editorial Board. I was also on the Editorial Board of Our Troops News Ladder another progressive leaning Veterans and Military Family news clearing house. I remain married for over 45 years. I am both a Vietnam Era and Gulf War Veteran. I served on Okinawa and Fort Carson, Colorado during Vietnam and in the Office of the Air Force Inspector General at Norton AFB, CA during Desert Storm. I retired from the Air Force in 1994 having worked on the Air Staff and Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.