In an editorial opinion published in the New York Times on May 26th entitled ”
The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have repeatedly promised to do a better job of handling the medical evaluations of wounded and disabled service members. Instead, they are doing worse.
The processing of disability cases is getting slower, not faster. Efforts to ensure a “seamless transition” out of the military are falling short. Men and women are languishing without treatment, struggling to readjust to civilian lives as they cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, drug addiction and other service-related afflictions. The system that should be producing reliable results is mired in delays and dissatisfaction.
A new report by the Government Accountability Office lays out the problem. In 2007, the two departments began combining their separate, complicated and cumbersome processes for disability evaluations into one system. The system is now in place worldwide, and officials from both departments promised the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee a year ago that it had become “more transparent, consistent and expeditious.”
But the accountability office found otherwise. It said processing times for disability cases had actually gone up — to an average of 394 days for active-duty troops and 420 days for National Guard members and reservists in 2011, well over the departments’ goals of 295 and 305 days. In fiscal year 2010, 32 percent of active-duty troops and 37 percent of Guard and Reserve troops completed evaluations and received benefits within established timelines. Last year, those figures fell to a dismal 19 percent and 18 percent.
What’s going on? The report says the causes are not fully understood, but it points to persistent staffing shortages, problems in collecting and reporting data, and differences among the service branches and between the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department in the way cases are diagnosed and tracked. The accountability office says it will make recommendations later this year as it sees whether promised improvements are taking hold, including a hiring push by the Army — a huge source of processing bottlenecks — and the V.A.
Senator Patty Murray, chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, deserves credit for focusing attention on these and other failings in a series of hearings, including one last Wednesday that examined the bureaucratic delays. She also used the hearing to bring up disturbing reports that doctors at an Army base in Washington State had repeatedly — and wrongly — rejected soldiers’ legitimate post-traumatic stress disorder claims.
Wounded and disabled service members should not be forced to wait endlessly without treatment or benefits while the government evaluates their injuries. Nor should they have to battle their own government for honest treatment. The evaluations should be accurate, not consistently wrong. Ms. Murray noted on Wednesday that there were about 27,000 military personnel in the system, three times the number in 2010. Many more are on the way. “Clearly, much work remains to be done,” she said. She is right. There is no excuse for more backsliding and delay.
Enough “lip service” as Hack would say. Let’s rollup our sleeves and help these brave heroes.