Wednesday's 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq fueled passions on both sides of the debate about the need for and the results of that war. But one aspect of this issue has already been answered. Our nation is falling far short of providing prompt and adequate health care to many of the approximately 2.3 million men and women who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's past time for the American public to increase the demand — directly on the Department of Veterans Affairs and indirectly on members of Congress who oversee the agency — that clearly quantifiable grievances are heard and resolved. For example, according to a recent article by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), in the past four years "the number of veterans waiting more than a year for service-connected health benefits had increased from 11,000 to 245,000, a jump of more than 2,000 percent."
VA officials have said they're working hard to fix the problem. That's not good enough. They've been saying that for years, but as cironline.org reported last week, "internal documents show the agency believes the number of veterans waiting for benefits, currently at about 900,000, will hit a million this month and continue to rise throughout the year."
This dreadful neglect of veterans is nationwide. The News Tribune in Tacoma reports that the average wait to begin receiving VA disability compensation is 337 days at the Seattle office, much worse than the 213-day wait in January 2012. In New York City, the average wait is 641 days.
The overall story is not without scattered positive developments. Researchers and VA health care providers are learning more about post-traumatic stress disorder. A McClatchy Newspapers story described PTSD as "the most pressing, and potentially costly" disability that veterans encounter. The VA has seen more than 270,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for PTSD, awarding benefits to more than 150,000.
Many members of Congress, notably Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have made it clear that the status quo is worse than unacceptable; it's appalling. Countless bureaucrats have been hauled in before committees. But far too often, the responses are mere double talk. The CIR describes a recent appearance by Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary of benefits, before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which "demanded the VA share its internal performance data with Congress." But Hickey's answers "were so vague, it was unclear whether the information will be turned over."
The VA has been installing a new computer system that is supposed to help the agency meet its goals, but after four years and half a billion dollars, the system still is not fully operational.
None of this should be happening in the world's most advanced nation, and especially not to our military veterans. Veterans benefits generally range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month, and the cost to our country will only increase as veterans grow older. Factor in the ancillary burdens on the veterans' families, and the entire impact is enormous.
If the VA cannot improve quickly, Congress must turn up the heat even higher.