Two very important anniversaries occurred this November. The first, occurring onNovember 6, was the 57th Presidential election. The second, which helped make the first possible, is the 93rd observance of Veterans Day. Today I read numerous emails from politicians and other public officials of every stripe, party and ideology praising efforts of our veterans. Public officials and citizens alike will often take some time to recognize and honor veterans. Recently, the words "Thank you for your service" have come to warm the cockles of many veterans, young and old. Unfortunately, the actions of our government do not always echo the warm words. The government promises to not leave us behind, many veterans have trouble catching up.
I have worked in VA law since before I came an attorney, taking my own case up to the Supreme Court of the United States. My frustration with the VA and with the veterans law system was part of the reason why I became an attorney. A system that advertises itself as non adversarial and paternal is instead confrontational and dismissive. Bureaucracy has replaced benevolence and it seems that many in government consider veterans an interruption fo their work rather than the reason for it.
When I was up in Washington this past September I had the opportunity to meet with the staff members from the House and Senate Veterans Committee. I challenged them to call the toll free veterans hotline and see how long it took to get an answer. My advice to them was to put the phone on speaker and continue their work because they would wait a very long time for an answer. My average wait time is 90 minutes. Many of you have certainly waited longer. I will be back in DC next week and will look forward to asking them about that experience or whether they even tried it.
The veterans hotline, or perhaps I should say cold line, – you can die of old age waiting for an answer – is one symptom of the problem Backlogs are increasing. When I first filed a claim took six months to resolve. My last request for a reassessment is at eleven months and counting. We have continued to throw money at the problem with no success. Instead we have hired more government workers who do not know how to process claims or simply refuse to do so.
At the center of the problem is the Board of Veterans Appeals. Currently, over 50% of the appeals from the Board are remanded back from the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims because they are not ready for the court to consider. Most of them are then returned to the Regional Office. The process takes months and years to resolve. None of the records, or at least not may of them, are digitalized. Paper files are mailed back and forth and sit for days on end in mail rooms. Each time a file is returned, it must go through the intake process. Papers go missing or are duplicated and the file grows fatter while the veteran grows older.
There is no compatibility between the DOD records and the VA system. Medical and service record should be seamless. They are not. Different systems, different record keeping procedures and different programs that do not talk to each other.
In the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, three judgeships were vacant for most of the year. One still is. Congress authorized additional judgeships but they were not filled. As a result, the backlog continues to grow.
Attorneys are not allowed to participate for pay at the Regional office level. As a result, Veterans Service Officers throughout the country, of varying education, background and knowledge, file the initial claims. They often do not have complete access to all medical records and must wait until the Claims file is complete before requesting it. More importantly, the VA has no outreach program to train the VSOs, leaving them to their own devices or to receive the training their sponsoring organization provides. No lessons learned or videos on how to file a claim have been distributed by the VA.
To top it off, the Regional Offices use the VA M 21-MR manual to process claims, while the Board of Veterans Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims uses the Code of Federal Regulations.
The answer to the problem is simple. Process the claim quickly and do it right the first time. Train the people reviewing the claim and train the people submitting the claim. Scrap the veterans hotline and allow the preparer to talk directly with the reviewer. Stop filling up the file with useless paperwork and communicate.
Have you ever read a statement of the case that the VA issues if the veteran wishes to appeal a denial? 3/4 of it is taken up with quotations from statutes and the Code of Federal Regulations - many of which are inapplicable to the case. These quotes are the actual language of the statute or regulation and not summarized in layman’s terms. As an attorney my eyes sometimes glaze over when reading these documents. Just think about the poor guy or gal out there trying to do it on their own.
Bottom line, the Veterans benefits system as become more about form than substance This must change. St. Tammany President Pat Brister has appointed a Veterans and Military Advisory Counsel that is trying to take on some of these problems. A new non-profit, Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc., will be starting up next year. And Loyola Law School has expressed an interest in establishing a Veterans Legal Clinic.
These are starts in the right direction but true reform must come from Congress. Much work must still be done to ensure that there is adequate treatment and compensation for the victims of Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome and new victims of the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must work hard to establish Veterans Courts to process veterans who are charged with minor offenses that are symptomatic of PTSD.
The nation of Australia has fought beside the United States in every war of the last and current century. They have taken the lead in caring for their veterans and track the physical and mental health of every veteran from time of discharge until their death. Unlike our own system, they outreach to veterans and their families and work tirelessly to discover new areas where veterans treatment is required. Perhaps it is too late to establish such a program for the veterans of past wars - the numbers may be too great. But we can start with the veterans of today and over time keep the promise made by President Abraham Lincoln, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."
Everyone talks the talk on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and occasionally Armed Forced Day. It is time to walk the walk 365 days of the year. We have just finished electing a President and a Congress. There were a few words bandied around by both parties but where is the plan? Where is the action? As veterans and as those who support veterans, it is time for us to demand action and not words from our elected leaders. When we meet our Congressmen and Senators ask them what are you doing for veterans. Take a minute to educate yourself. All bills filed are online www.thomas.gov. Use the search engine for the word veteran and you will find dozens of bills supporting veterans. The texts of the bills are available as well as a list of sponsors. If your Congressman and Senator is not a co-sponsor to a bill that you think is meritorious, ask them why. Carry a copy of the bill with you and let them look at it. Then require a response. Or write them a letter and ask the same question. These letters are read and the Congressmen and Senators are briefed on them. I know when I meet with staff members and occasionally with Members of Congress. They tell me when they have heard about the issue from their constituents. Always remember – they work for you.
I hope that I have not painted too bleak a picture because believe it or not, the system works. But it only works if you make it work. The VA needs to be overhauled but it will not happen until enough people contact Congress and demand it. Individual letters from constituents rather than mass emailouts is the best approach.
We enjoy our freedom today because of our veterans. It is time to put action behind the words. Veterans are being left behind. That needs to stop. Not only must we include those returning today but we must do a better job of taking care of those who have served before. We must work together to ensure that all veterans receive the care and the benefits they have earned. Thank you.
John Wells is a proven leader and tirelessly works to defend the United States.