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It’s been over ten months since I filed my application with the Veterans Administration for benefits related to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That’s three hundred or so days waiting to find out if one part of the VA – the Veterans Benefits Administration – agrees with another part of the VA – the Veterans Health Administration – that I need and deserve help. Today is PTSD awareness day so I thought it appropriate to start talking about this. Over the next weeks, I’ll post updates to my status as a way of documenting the process. If you’re interested, here is the story of how I got this way.

I’m one of over three-quarters of a million veterans who have been waiting for over four months to be screened for benefits. While we’re waiting out here in limboland we don’t receive financial support or disabled veteran’s preference in our job hunt. Nonetheless, and I greatly appreciate this fact, we are entitled to medical care, which is easy to get as long as we’re near a VA clinic. Why does one part of the VA seem to work well and another seem broken? Keep reading.

So many veterans are returning from these wars with PTSD, that the VA had to change its evaluation system. As of July 2010, the VA allows that simple presence in a combat zone is sufficient to induce PTSD, and no doctor’s evaluation is required to screen for benefits. According to the VA, the system authorizes staff to “rely on a veteran’s lay testimony alone to establish a stressor related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity, provided the claimed stressor is consistent with the circumstances of service.” That rule went into effect the month before I sought VA medical care and applied for benefits. On the medical care side, I showed up with my DD 214 in hand and was treated on the spot. Three hundred days later, I have not been evaluated for benefits.

So the question remains: why does it take so long for one part of the VA to adjudicate a claim when another part of the VA takes action immediately? It’s pretty clear that part of the problem is that the VA’s benefits system is simply underwater, overwhelmed with the number of applications. But, part of the problem is highlighted in a recent VA inspector general report.

According to the VA’s inspector general, half of the regional offices surveyed did not follow VA policy when processing PTSD claims, primarily because “staff lacked sufficient experience and training to process these claims accurately.” On Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) claims the VA performance was worse: 75% of the regional offices failed to follow VA policy. The IG says the reason is the same.

Sadly, it gets worse. The VA is authorized to give veterans a temporary 100% disability rating. This temporary rating is usually put in place to allow the veteran time to recuperate from surgery or to allow medical personnel to conduct complete evaluations while the veteran is a patient in the hospital – this is helpful. However, at the end of the temporary rating period, the veteran must be re-evaluated to determine his or her final disability rating. None, zero percent, of the offices inspected followed VA policy and 82% of the cases were improperly handled. This could translate into a $1.1 billion loss in just five years.

Overall, the IG reports that the sixteen regional offices inspected incorrectly handled 23% of their claims. If Secretary Shinseki is casting about for a way to reduce waiting times and get more veterans’ claims processed and paid, this might be it. Hire sufficient numbers of the right people and train them well.