This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ delays in acting on disability claims isn’t just inconvenient. Congressional testimony Thursday indicates that at least two veterans may have died “due to delay in care.”
That would be the most extreme result of the VA’s backlog, which doesn’t appear to be decreasing. Most regional offices are experiencing longer processing times, according to auditors and a review of VA data by McClatchy Newspapers.
The average wait to begin receiving disability compensation is now 337 days at the Seattle office – more than 11 months – up from 213 days in January 2012. It’s even worse in New York City: 641 days. The number of vets with backlogged claims is expected to be more than 1 million by the end of March – and keep growing.
Even after interminable waits, the VA’s disability decisions are often wrong, with error rates ranging from a low of 4 percent in Lincoln, Neb., to a high of 26 percent in Baltimore, Md. The Puget Sound area improved from an error rate of 13 percent to
11 percent – still unacceptably high.
Yes, the VA is in a tough spot, with hundreds of thousands of claims coming in from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as earlier engagements. And the backlog has been increased in large part because the agency has made it easier for veterans to get benefits related to Agent Orange, Gulf War illness and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But that doesn’t excuse egregious behavior, uncovered by the Government Accountability Office, of VA employees at several locations altering computer files to make it appear that patient wait times for receiving care are being handled more promptly than they really are.
It’s unclear if VA employees were being pressured by supervisors to game the system. Federal authorities should determine what happened and appropriate action taken against wrongdoers.
VA officials insist that most if not all the backlog will go away when all of its offices are on the agency’s new computer system by the end of the year. That seems overly optimistic – especially when the new program failed during a demonstration for congressional staff.
Veterans groups such as the Disabled American Veterans say they believe the VA is on the right track and that its leaders are committed to improvement. We hope their confidence is not misplaced.