Veterans Administration in 2014: still the same old same old

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For the past few days people have been reminiscing about the year that just past and looking forward to the year just starting. It’s a good thing to see so many people have hope for the future and little or no regret for the past.

While watching TV, a very familiar commercial caught my eye and got me to thinking about this.

For the past two-plus years I’ve been dealing with a claim from the V.A. In October of 2012, 14 months after first applying for these benefits, it was “finished,” which is to say the employees of the V.A. thought it was completed.

In early December of 2012 I realized the amount was low so I began the process of calling four to five times a week to begin an appeal. Finally on January 8, 2013 I got through to someone and told her what I saw as an error.

We went through some preliminary questions to determine just where the miscalculation occurred, double-checked everything because if you’ve ever tried to call the Veterans Administration’s 800-number you’ll know getting through is akin to winning the Power Ball Lottery.

Damn! Now I had to wait for an appeal! So, month after month goes by; the V.A. ebenefits website says the estimated window for the completion of my appeal is — and I kid you not — September 19, 2013-February 2, 2014.

So being crazy insane at times I figured out how many days that window is … having a calculator makes it easier … 136 days.

Bear in mind, that’s not the number of days I’ll have to wait for a completion, that’s the completion window, the time frame when the appeal might be completed.

The lowest number of days I’ll have to wait for a completion is 254 days — if it’s completed by September 19, 2013.  So far, so … whatever.

September 19 rolls around and past. We lope into October, then November and then … in mid-December I get a call from a claims specialist who is calling about the appeal. All right! We’re well over 300 days waiting, but still under 365 days.

The specialist starts asking the same questions the previous specialist asked because, and I kid you not, there didn’t seem to be any record of any of the comments I had made 300-plus days earlier. No problem, it’s getting corrected so let’s be happy. I have to repeat the nature of the error four times until the specialist finally gets it — and really, until I get the notification letter I’m just hoping she got it.

The ebenefits site says the estimated date of completion will be December 19, 2013 to January 1, 2014. It was actually completed on December 28, with the notification letter set to be mailed December 31.

Here’s the crazy notion part: the second specialist and I were talking about the claims process and how long it takes to complete. She then says, “It’s great news it only took about 11 months to finish.”

Okay, it was actually about 11 and a-half months, but let’s be magnanimous and call it 11 months.

Then I started laughing and she wanted to know why. Well, here it is: I first applied for these benefits in July 2011 and now it was almost two and a half years later and we’re just now finishing it up, due to an appeal that itself, from the time I first tried to make the appeal, was a full year of waiting. But we’re counting from the day I spoke to someone on January 8, 2013 … trust me, it’s just easier to go with the dates that are in the system if it isn’t going to have any affect on the results.

The resolution, or “awards” letter the veterans receive from the V.A. once their claim or appeal is completed; with the V.A. seal. Even after this resolution letter was received, the author had to call and ask about a date on the form which turned out to be a typo at least and could be an error that that changes the calculation. (Photo by author)
The resolution, or “awards” letter the veterans receive from the V.A. once their claim or appeal is completed; with the V.A. seal.
Even after this resolution letter was received, the author had to call and ask about a date on the form which turned out to be a typo at least and could be an error that that changes the calculation.
(Photo by author)

Here’s why it is “funny,” in a painfully frustrating and anger-inducing way: most vets that make appeals on claims have to wait nearly 18 months, some waiting even longer. So, we think it’s a good thing my appeal took less than a year—if you don’t count the weeks I spent calling every day to try and get through.

Think about this: our veterans put their lives on the line for us, all volunteers no less, for shit pay and a dwindling amount of other benefits.

Men and women who once thought the military would be a career get out, some for career-ending injuries, other because it’s just too difficult to live on what the military pays, even if they live in the barracks and eat most of their meals at the mess hall.

Others get out because the time away from families while on deployment, usually a year, is too much to bear, especially if the vet has been in country three or more times.

So how do we treat these men and women, the one percent of the population, that takes that oath to serve and protect America? We cut the funding for the Veterans Administration and push the employees to the breaking point trying to address the thousands of claims and appeals that come across their desks.

The funding has slowly been coming back, but the claims process has been so backlogged for so long, the V.A. estimates it will take them until mid-2014 before they get all caught up.

Personally, I’m afraid to ask how big the window is for that estimate because really, as long as they’re completing my appeal, I don’t want to confuse the appeals specialist with questions that do not apply to my particular appeal. Seriously. I had to repeat what the error was four times. Don’t want to cause anymore … delays.

In 2012 President Obama addressed the issue and said adding more employees wasn’t the answer.

That just boggled my brain. According to the president all they needed to do was get all the records transferred from paper files to digital files and then all would be okay and the average wait time would be less than three months. We just needed to be patient.

Are you kidding me, Mr. President!

My claim was a relatively minor one, compared to the vets who have lost limbs, parts of their brains, other body parts. Some of those vets have been waiting more than a year just for the initial claim and well over a year for the appeal.

Many vets die before the claims and appeals are completed — and then the next of kin get the awards letter and the first check, which also means they have to go through the process of contacting the V.A. to let them know the veteran has passed away. You can probably guess how pleasant an experience that can be for the bereaved loved ones—especially if they have to call day after day for several weeks before they can actually speak to someone. “Delay, deny — wait ’til I die.”

Don’t tell us to be patient — get it fixed.

These veterans fulfilled their contracts, it’s time for the government to fulfill its end of the deal. Give service-connected disabled vets a lifetime of free health care, not just five years — they earned it. Stop charging vets co-pays for their medications. Many of them are trying to survive on just the disability payments and that barely covers expenses, so the cost of the meds can be too much.

Start giving veterans dental care. Every medical doctor and dentist knows how oral health is tied to the health of the cardio-vascular system and the heart itself. Dental care is vital to the health and well being of the vets and many of them cannot afford dental work even if they could afford dental insurance.

And that 1.5 percent cost-of-living raise we get to our benefits every few years; why don’t you give us the same percentage of a pay increase as Congress votes for itself.

This is what I’m thinking about on this first day of 2014. Country singer Trace Atkins is in a TV commercial for the Wounded Warriors Project It was in heavy rotation on New Year’s Day. It’s a great thing to see civilians step up and volunteer their money and time to help wounded veterans, but really, the building of specialty hospitals and rehabs for veterans shouldn’t be left up to the few concerned citizens who contribute to these efforts, it’s the responsibility of our government.

The politicians pledged to take care of the vets; they talked the talk about supporting the troops — it’s time to step up and do it.