What Can We Do to Help?

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Total annual VA disability-claims backlog, as projected by the VA.

Part 3 of 3: What the rest of us can do to help

Over the past two days, we’ve detailed how and why the Department of Veterans Affairs’ disability-claims backlog came to be, and what the government is doing about it.

In this final post, I want to note what the rest of us – citizens – can do.

Looking at the magnitude of the problem is enough to make anyone throw up their hands. But regular people can make a difference:

— Contact your elected representatives in Congress to urge adequate funding for and oversight of VA.

— Public attention does make a difference: President Obama’s latest budget increases funding specifically to tackle the backlog, no doubt due to public pressure.

— Donate money or time to VSOs.

— Hire veterans.

— Don’t spread inaccurate information that discourages veterans from seeking the care and benefits they deserve.

What Can Veterans Do?

Veterans can help themselves, too:

— Submit a Fully Developed Claim (FDC). Veterans can submit all evidence required for their claim rather than waiting for VA to request it from the Defense Department (for example), ensuring faster processing.

— Flag special needs to receive expedited processing. A veteran struggling with terminal illness, financial hardship, or homelessness should ensure that is flagged in the claim; it will be processed more quickly (this is still true after the recent announcement that VA will begin tackling the oldest claims first).

— Work with a VSO to submit a complete and accurate claim. Congressionally-chartered VSOs like DAV, VFW, and the American Legion have trained professionals who can walk you through the process, assist you in filing your claim, and support you along the way.

— If you have a pending claim, do not add additional issues – that sends your claim to the end of the line and the clock starts over again. Wait until it has been completed, and then submit issues that have developed or worsened since your first claim was filed.

— Don’t be deterred from filing a claim for the compensation you deserve. Open your claim as soon as possible, because once your claim is decided, your benefits will generally be backdated to the day you opened your claim (more details here). Then collect all the information and submit (if possible, an FDC) when you’re ready. Don’t let the negative news coverage convince you not to file; if you have a service-connected disability you deserve compensation.

— Crucially, veterans and pundits should remember that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is not the same organization as the Veterans Benefits Administration. Veterans may qualify for free health care even if they do not have disability rating from VBA.

For instance, all OIF/OEF veterans qualify for five years of free VA health care. Certain populations, such as those who experienced military sexual trauma, qualify for free care for the treatment of issues arising from that experience, regardless of claims status.

Those of us outside those groups are still entitled to care, though we may owe co-pays. And VA health care has been found to deliver higher quality care than civilian systems of care by independent researchers.

Most importantly: don’t give up.

This transition to a computerized claims process sucks, there’s no denying it. If you’re stuck in the backlog, it must be wildly frustrating. My combat-disabled husband filed his claim as soon as he was medically retired in late 2005, and for a few nerve-wracking months while I was between jobs, we both ended up on unemployment.

We were lucky: I got a job soon and his claim was decided fairly quickly. Much longer and we would have been in dire straits. If you are starting to experience financial hardship while waiting, you can seek help from one of the 14,000 vetted resources listed in the National Resource Directory to tide you over.

Veterans in crisis should call 800-273-TALK or go online for 24/7 assistance. You don’t need to suffer alone. Vet Centers are also great option for many who need non-medical counseling.

The Bottom Line

There’s a significant backlog of disability claims. Current VA leadership made a series of decisions in the best interests of veterans (most notably adding Agent Orange presumptives and lowering the PTSD burden of proof) knowing they would temporarily increase the backlog…amidst a long-overdue transition to electronic records processing.

VA officials have described this to me as changing from a turboprop to a jet engine mid-flight.

Could Shinseki have thrown all resources at handling paper claims and ended the immediate problem faster? Sure.

But that wouldn’t have solved the structural problem. It would merely have passed it on to the next secretary. Calls for him to resign are misplaced.

Those with viable ideas on how VA can improve should step forward – VBA leadership is willing to listen and actively seeking engaged partners. Those who lack suggestions for VA should at least make the effort to provide balanced, thoughtful information to veterans so as not to discourage us from seeking the care and benefits we have earned.

It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and bitch about how much VA sucks. It might get a lot of page views and assist with fundraising, but it doesn’t help solve the problem – and it may actually harm veterans by deterring them from seeking the care and benefits they deserve.

It’s much harder to be part of the solution, to come to the table with constructive criticism and suggested solutions that may make a positive difference.

I’m frankly sick of the former and desperate to see more of the latter.

Part 1: What’s up at the VA?

Part 2: What the VA is doing about the backlog

Part 3: What the rest of us can do to help

Kayla Williams is a former sergeant and Arabic linguist in a Military Intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). She is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.