Disabled Veterans: 6 reforms the VA must make

Veterans say the Department of Veterans Affairs should improve wait times, cultural sensitivity, leadership

By Ashley Balcerzak

In 2014, whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote exposed the wrongdoings happening at the Phoenix Veterans Administration facility, including falsifying records and offering long waiting periods that led to the death of more than 40 veterans who didn’t get their diagnosis or treatment on time.

What’s more, this scandal led to further investigations into VA facilities across the country, where inspectors cited many other programs as “troubled.”

Since this whirlwind of audits and examinations, President Barack Obama and advocates have noted the improvements the Department of Veterans Affairs made, such as shorter wait times and increased staff numbers, but all said there is still a long way to go.

The VA includes the largest health care system in the country. It is also the second largest federal agency in the U.S.

Difficulty navigating and organizing such a large bureaucracy is the root of many veterans’ problems with the department, according to a group of disabled veterans interviewed who use the VA for their benefits or health care.

The department’s website is a great source of information but difficult to navigate, said Gene Silvestri, the VA coordinator for American Military Partners Association, a nonprofit helping veterans and their partners. The 40,000-member organization, based in D.C., launched in 2009 as a campaign to advocate for same-sex partners of service members during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies.

“The sheer volume that exists within the website is overwhelming, especially for those dealing with anxiety or depression,” Silvestri said.  

The VA has its specialties and its shortfalls, said veteran Ross Meglathery, the director of Vets First, an organization that helps veterans obtain their benefits. Formed as a separate program under the United Spinal Association in 2009, Vets First consults more than 2,000 veterans a year and helps with individual claims for benefits from the VA.

“For instance, in certain specific medical issues, such as spinal cord issues or brain issues, the VA has a lot of experience and they’re really good at it,” Meglathery said.  

The VA has made efforts to publicly post wait time data and to improve the data tracking standards for accuracy, according to a blog post from Carolyn Clancy, the Veterans Health Administration interim undersecretary for health.

The VA did not respond a request to comment.

However, according to veterans and advisors helping veterans navigate the VA, many more improvements can be made.

Here’s what some disabled veterans and experts think the VA should focus on:

Wait times and backlogs

“At a personal level, in my own experience, I myself had difficulties with it … My own claim took about 38 months. When I reached the solution set, I said, ‘This is good enough.’ It wasn’t worth the time and the emotional stress,” said Drew Early, a veterans law attorney. The average wait time is supposed to be eight months for veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Early said.

Efficiency

“The VBA doesn’t have enough doctors, nurses, technologists,” said Jim Strickland, the overseer of VA Watchdog, a resource hub for veterans navigating the VA. “They cannot possibly keep up with the demand that is placed on them and that’s the reason for all of the scandals and what have you. There just aren’t enough people.”

Antiquated guidelines and technology

“The rules and regulations that govern how we are rated for disabilities and how we are allowed to access both our health care and our benefits were made in the 40s and 50s and not much has changed,” Strickland said. “It is also a massively paper oriented system and they can’t break free from that.”

Leadership

“It’s my opinion that former Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey was the best hope that the VBA [Veterans Benefits Administration] had to modernize the overall system. Now they have a temp in there again, for such a vitally important position,” Strickland said. “All the progress she made fighting tooth and nail, I expect to grind to a halt.”

Hickey, who held the highest benefits position in the VA, stepped down in October. Hickey spurred the effort to modernize the department and introduced automatic electronic systems, Strickland said.

Arbitrary time limits

The vocational rehabilitation and employment program, a VA service that offers job training to vets, requires that veterans seek the benefits before 12 years pass since they served, Meglathery said.

“You may not realize you have issues until years later. It may not hit you,” Meglathery said. Some variants of post-traumatic stress disorder take months or years before symptoms crop up, wrote Matthew Friedman with the National Center for PTSD.

Meglathery recommended Congress do away with these arbitrary time limits in a testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Cultural Acceptance

There has been a huge movement across the country to try to care for LGBT vets, Silvestri said. “The VA is trying to bridge that gap with therapeutic groups, mind and body workshops, therapy, with things popping up here and there, but it’s not consistent across the system.”

Doctors and workers are still uncomfortable asking questions about a veteran’s sexuality or gender identity, which can be crucial to determining their health care, Silvestri said.

“The LGBT has issues with the VA specific to their community, including being afraid a physician will laugh, snicker, roll their eyes, or aren’t informed,” Silvestri said. “The VA needs greater cultural acceptance.”

Veteran suffering uncovered: