For the Record: A Dose of Reality About Solving the VA Disability Backlog

In a heated moment earlier this month, Rep. Bob Filner suggested to Congress that the VA system is so bad we might as well "blow it up." This week on, he had some new choice words.
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This week Rep. Bob Filner (D CA-51), ranking member and former chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, joined MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show to ask the question: Why is the VA so broken and how do we fix it?

Filner is livid about the state of the system and backlog. So are thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking care nationwide. It isn't news to them that the VA disability claims process is flat out broken, and IAVA has been sounding the alarm to VA, Congress and the White House since our organization was founded in 2004. Even after four years of record budgets and monumental increases to manpower at VA, the disability claims backlog is sitting at a staggering 65 percent -- roughly 870,000 claims waiting for action nationwide. This claims backlog is a national disgrace for our country, and the VA has been less than aggressive in tackling the problem. As a result, for our veterans' community, this situation is leaving the lives of hundreds of thousands of OIF/OEF veterans and veterans of all generations hanging in the balance.

In a heated moment earlier this month, Rep. Filner went as far as to suggest to Congress that the VA system is so bad that we might as well "blow it up."

On Maddow, he went as far as to suggest that veterans groups like IAVA advocating in Washington are actually standing in the way of true reform. "I think it's a bureaucracy that has been in charge for decades that doesn't want to do anything differently," Filner said. "It's veterans groups who sort of have -- they drank the Kool-Aid of the bureaucracy. They say, well let's just play around the edges of it. And they're afraid to take on the system."

For the record: IAVA has been and remains in the middle of this fight to reform the VA disability process. Our membership has been taking on the system before Rep. Filner took chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. In 2010, disability reform was our top policy priority in Washington -- and in the end, ironically, it was stymied by opposition in Congress.

So how can we fix the process?

First, Congress, the White House, VA and all VSOs can start by getting on the same page: the VA disability process was obsolete before most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of this generation were even born. The process lacks transparency. It's confusing, complicated, still paper-based -- and we have yet to see any significant implementation of a digital records system by the VA. Through technology and modern business practices, the VA can fix many of these problems. They can surely make the process faster and more accurate for veterans seeking care.

But the real challenge is cutting down the complexity of the system and implementing a realistic plan of action. Blowing up the system doesn't solve the problem or help vets. So on Maddow, Filner pitched a bold Hail Mary to fix the system: Let veterans file VA disability claims like they would file their taxes with the IRS.

Bold solution? Maybe. New solution? No -- Linda Bilmes originally proposed this plan in her research at Harvard. Smart solution? Definitely not.

In a nutshell, Filner's pitch suggests that every veteran should be able to tell the VA what they think their injuries are and if they believe that they are 1) mildly, 2) moderately, or 3) severely disabled. The theory goes that VA would then audit a small percentage of these claims to ensure their accuracy. Filner and Bilmes believe this would make the process faster. IAVA and the majority of Veterans Service Organizations do not.

Here's why:

In order to ensure that veterans get the benefits that they deserve, the VA needs to medically evaluate every veteran's injuries or obtain medical evidence of those injuries. Unless you are a doctor, you have no idea how to evaluate your own injuries. When I filed my taxes, I knew how much I made and how much I paid in taxes. The IRS has access to verifiable data and taxes are about math. By contrast, when I filed my disability claim after left the Army in 2007, I had no idea that I had a 30 percent loss of motion -- service-related -- in my left shoulder due to a permanently damaged rotator cuff. If I hadn't undergone an evaluation, the VA wouldn't have known, either. At the time, all I knew was that my arm hurt and I couldn't lift certain things. I had no idea how that quantified and qualified as a disability rating. I'm a veteran. Not a medical expert. I don't pretend to be one, and neither should any other veteran.

While a clever campaign slogan, making the VA disability process work like the IRS would be a disaster for both veterans and the VA. Yes, the VA is currently failing at evaluating disability in a timely and accurate manner. But allowing non-medical professionals to guess disability ratings is no solution to the problem. It sounds slick on television and in speeches, but it isn't a realistic or viable fix. No expert in the veterans' or disability community supports the idea. And it isn't -- as Rep. Filner claims -- that veterans' groups have "drank the VA's bureaucratic Kool-Aid" or that we "don't support veterans" that we serve. We just know what we are talking about.

Across the country, OIF/OEF veterans and veterans of all generations are suffering because the VA is failing to deliver. Instead of throwing Hail Marys or mudslinging in campaign season, it's time that we get serious about helping the VA recognize and fix its biggest flaws:

•We need the VA to implement its long-awaited paperless claims system.
•We need the VA to adopt a culture that rewards accuracy and customer service.
•We need the VA to figure out how to make the claims process transparent.
•We need the VA's leadership to step up and publicly fight for its beneficiaries.

Those of us in the VSO community have been proposing tested, realistic and proven solutions to these problems for years. In 2010, the VA adopted several of them and there was even legislation (VA supported) that would have fixed many of these remaining issues. Unfortunately, it was those in Congress including Rep. Filner who subscribed to wild theories that obstructed real reform that could have made a big difference by now for millions of veterans.

Ultimately, this debate isn't about process or systems -- it's about saving lives. The reality is that 65 percent of America's veterans are waiting too long for benefits that would connect them with critical care, services and programs to better their lives. They need serious solutions, they need them now, and its long past time Congress stepped up and had their backs.

Tom Tarantino is the deputy policy director at IAVA.

IAVA has been a leading voice in holding the VA accountable for their failure to deliver timely and accurate disability benefits to veterans. In Washington and nationwide, we have been strong advocates for our 200,000 members and their families, fighting to ensure that the VA claims process provides them with the care and benefits that they need and deserve.

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