WASHINGTON (AP) - The Veterans Affairs' system for handling disability claims is strained to its limit, and the Bush administration's current efforts to relieve backlogs won't be enough to serve veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, investigators said Tuesday.
In testimony to a House panel, the Government Accountability Office and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes detailed their study into the VA's claims system in light of growing demands created by wars. They found a system on the verge of crisis due to backlogs, cumbersome paperwork and ballooning costs.
The House hearing is the latest to review the quality of care for wounded troops returning from Iraq - from emergency medical care at military hospitals, to long-term rehabilitation at VA clinics and eventual transition to civilian life with VA disability payments.
According to their findings, the VA:
_Took between 127 to 177 days to process an initial claim and an average of 657 days to process an appeal, resulting in significant hardship to veterans. In contrast, the private sector industry takes about 89.5 days to process a claim.
_Had a claims backlog of roughly 600,000.
_Will see 638,000 new first-time claims in the next five years due to the Iraq war - 400,000 by the end of 2009 alone - creating added costs of between $70 billion and $150 billion.
What's hard to talk about is the agony and suffering being inflicted not just on the Iraqi people, but on our citizens who go to fight there. On one hand, you have soldiers injured in combat being sent back before they heal:
"This is not right," said Master Sgt. Ronald Jenkins, who has been ordered to Iraq even though he has a spine problem that doctors say would be damaged further by heavy Army protective gear. …
As the military scrambles to pour more soldiers into Iraq, a unit of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Ga., is deploying troops with serious injuries and other medical problems, including GIs who doctors have said are medically unfit for battle. Some are too injured to wear their body armor, according to medical records.
So we don't want them to go, can't afford to send them, don't properly protect them, don't take care of them when they get injured, but keep saying that we're making progress.
Who is in charge up there in Washington and why don't they see what the rest of us see?