The news coming out of the Veterans Affairs Department this week poses a startling and highly troubling paradox: While grievously wounded or mentally troubled veterans are struggling to see a doctor or get their disability claims processed, the department has showered government doctors and bureaucrats with bonuses for outstanding work.
The VA has given workers millions of dollars of bonuses for “excellent performances” that effectively reward them for avoiding claims that need extra work to document veterans’ injuries. In 2011, a year in which the claims backlog ballooned by 155 percent, more than two-thirds of claims processors shared $5.5 million in bonuses, according to a report by News21, a national collegiate investigative team sponsored by Arizona State University.
And the GAO discovered the VA had doled out millions of dollars in performance-based bonuses to doctors who have provided poor or inadequate treatment. The report said that since the VA doesn’t have agency-wide standards to define the requirements for the monetary awards, each facility decides who receives the bonuses.
Not surprisingly, this has led to “lax oversight.” One doctor received more than $7,600 in performance pay even after he was “reprimanded” by his employer for practicing with an expired license for three months and failing to reach 12 out of 13 performance goals.
Meanwhile, many of the nation’s wounded warriors have been caught up in the VA’s notorious disability claims backlog, which at its peak in March included more than 900,000 compensation requests from veterans, two-thirds of them waiting for more than 125 days.
Approximately 14,000 veterans had appeals pending for more than two years as of November.
A CULTURE OF DESPAIR
More troubling is the culture of despair and sense of hopelessness that the archaic government system for processing claims and scheduling doctor’s appointments has fostered for veterans and their families. The daily average of 22 suicides by veterans, reported in a VA study in February, was 20 percent higher than a 2007 department estimate.
Meanwhile, in the entire U.S. population, about 35,000 people commit suicide annually, or an average of 96 a day. From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate of Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
While military and VA officials might point to the fact that the national suicide average is higher than that of veterans and active duty military personnel, anecdotal evidence suggests a tragic suicide bubble among disabled vets who have gotten lost in a blizzard of paperwork and government inefficiencies.
The latest case in point is Army veteran Daniel Somers, who shot himself to death on June 10. As The Washington Post described in an article over the weekend, Somers’ service in Iraq, including multiple combat missions as a turret gunner, left him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The government, he wrote, had “turned around and abandoned me.”
An outmoded scheduling system at the Phoenix medical center left Somers waiting, often in vain, for a postcard with the date of his next mental health appointment. VA officials refused to accept phone calls to straighten out the confusion over appointments.
When Somers died, his case seeking full disability for his PTSD had been awaiting resolution for 20 months. “Is it any wonder that the latest figures show 22 veterans killing themselves each day?” Somers asked in a note left behind for his wife and family.
“He was one of those million vets who didn’t get the care they needed,” Jean Somers, Daniel Somers’ mother and a former health-care administrator, told The Post.
HOW BIG IS THAT BACKLOG?
Right now, at least 600,000 veterans are stuck in a disability benefits backlog.
The Obama administration has been criticized by veterans groups and conservative politicians and advocacy groups for this massive backlog. Some have even called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a former four-star general and Army chief of staff, or Allison A. Hickey, the undersecretary who oversees disability compensation.
The backlog has become a repeated topic of ridicule on “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart has skewered the bureaucracy in a series titled “The Red Tape Diaries,” according to The New York Times. Describing Shinseki’s promise to end the backlog in two years, Stewart – reflecting the sentiment of many veterans – observed in one segment: “In only two more years, they are hoping to have you wait only four more months.”
In addition to claims filed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, officials say that claims processors must struggle with understaffing and that forms are sometimes misplaced in file cabinets. The VA has shuffled more than 50,000 claims among regional offices since January, including 16,000 in June, according to internal documents. Some workers told News21 the practice is unfair to veterans filing claims when their local office has to shoulder the load for poorly managed offices elsewhere.
Veterans filing a disability claim often wait a year or more for a response from the VA, costing them thousands each month in disability payments while they get VA medical treatment. In fact, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York City-based advocacy group, the average wait time for a claim to be processed is 273 days. (Claims should be processed within 125 days.)
While the VA says it has been aggressively processing about 100,000 claims each month, it still has a long way to go. VA officials estimate the backlog won’t be fully cleared for another two years.
The VA, meanwhile, has also been working to further integrate its eBenefits portal with an automated Veterans Benefits Management System. Officials say this will expedite claims processing. Vets can use the portal to establish eligibility for benefits and upload their records as evidence to support their claims so they don’t need to mail in paper documents – presumably speeding up the process.