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Saturday, Jan 19 2013 11:00 PM

Here's a commitment we must honor

By The Bakersfield Californian

As the drawdown of troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, an estimated 1 million service members will become veterans in the coming years. The least we can do as a nation is spare them the battle so many of their fellow veterans have faced on the homefront: a fight against the bureaucracy that handles their medical care and disability benefits.

The ball is rolling, thanks in part to efforts by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who requested congressional audits of the Department of Veterans Affairs following reports of severe backlogs and claims processing faced by local veterans. Reports of those audits, released last week, revealed that the relatively brief wait times for medical care reported by Veterans Health Services aren't quite accurate, because an internal metrics system is flawed and unreliable. The audit also cast doubt on a VA plan to reduce the backlog of disability claims, which has created increasingly lengthy delays for veterans seeking benefits. As of October, the wait time at the VA's regional office in Los Angeles was a year and a half.

Such long waits to hear back on claims can be highly arduous on veterans and their families. Many veterans can't return to their civilian jobs and need assistance paying the bills while they seek schooling to help transition into new jobs. Some just desperately need medical care for traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress. In the intervening time they wait to hear back, they are sometimes forced to pay small fortunes out of pocket to treat military-related health problems.

It can be much worse in other cases. Because of the VA's long refusal to recognize a link between Agent Orange and cancer in veterans, one woman reported spending her family's entire retirement savings on her husband's cancer treatment, losing their home and her job in the process. The VA finally reversed its position and sent her a check for $79,000 almost a year after her husband's death. It's not uncommon for many veterans, especially elderly ones, to die waiting to hear back on their claims.

As the delays have mounted, the VA has pledged to do more to speed up claims processing. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, set a goal to process all disability claims in fewer than 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. But the recent audit expressed doubts about his chances of meeting that goal. It noted that while the VA was making progress in some areas to speed up claims processing, other areas were contributing to further delays and the VA lacked a comprehensive plan to ensure the end result is a reduction in claims delays.

The VA has acknowledged many of the flaws noted in the audits and says it has already started taking action to correct them. And the delays did not surface out of nowhere. The agency has been inundated with a 48 percent increase in new claims in recent years due to the return of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. An estimated 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets are filing disability claims, compared with 21 percent from the Persian Gulf War. The situation has also been compounded by the recent acknowledgment that Agent Orange is linked to cases of cancer experienced by some Vietnam veterans, leading to an additional 231,000 disability claim filings. The resources have been thrown at the department to address backlogs and staffing problems have only served to keep the situation from getting much worse.

But McCarthy and others in Congress must keep close watch on this issue, or designate someone to do so. The VA must have an effective plan in place to deal with these systemic problems and meet the goals it has set. It must also address its high error rate in denying claims and the lengths of its claims appeals process -- which now averages three and a half years.

We Americans like to pride ourselves in the way we honor our veterans of every era, young and old. We take pride in the work of our military men and women who serve today. But nothing speaks to our gratitude more than our willingness to provide comfort and protection to our men and women who are currently serving. But it's a commitment that never expires. If we intend to fully honor it, we still have a lot of work to do.

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