By the end of this month, the backlog is expected to hit one million. It's outrageous.
So many veterans have paid an extremely high price for those benefits, because many have been permanently disabled by loss of limbs and other terrible injuries.
Many veterans are dying before receiving benefits. How many is not known because the VA won’t say. The Baltimore Sun tried for two weeks to wring that information out of the agency, but failed.
However, according to the Bay Citizen in San Francisco, 19,500 veterans died awaiting benefits in the federal fiscal year from October 2011 to September 2012, based on retroactive benefits paid to survivors.
The number of veterans waiting more than a year for benefits skyrocketed from 10,000 in January 2009 to 243,000 in December 2012, a 2,000 percent increase, the Center for Investigative Reporting found.
Veterans in the largest urban centers face extremely long waits — 642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles and 542 days in Chicago. The center said the wait time for veterans filing first claims is 316 to 327 days.
Last Thursday, on the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, representatives of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America took the fight to end the backlog to Washington, the place where the problem exists. The organization carried a petition signed by more than 30,000 Americans demanding that President Obama and the VA end the backlog.
They met with more than 100 members of Congress, and IAVA chief executive Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran, led a group that met with the White House chief of staff and other officials.
“We got no new commitment from the president to end the VA disability benefits backlog,” Rieckhoff said afterward.
“We need to hear directly from the president that he shares that commitment (to end the backlog) and that he has a plan to fix it.”
One question that Obama must answer, Rieckhoff said, is whether VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should be replaced. But the solution is bigger than firing Shinseki.
There has to be a “cultural transformation” at the VA, Rieckhoff said, pointing out that three VA secretaries have failed to fix the problem.
“That’s why we’re focused on the president,” he said.
There’s no doubt the VA has had to cope with a huge number of returning veterans in recent years and has completed more than a million claims since 2010, but the agency has been far too slow in going paperless and making other improvements, such as hiring enough claims processors to get the job done.
It comes down to veterans feeling betrayed — with good reason.
As Paul Reickoff put it, “When your claim is delayed 600 days ... you feel like your president and your country are letting you down.”
If you want to sign the IAV petition, go online to iava.org/sth2013-home.