Though I have no reason, yet, to doubt he is up to the task, new Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki nonetheless has his work cut out for him. Amid seemingly more immediate, squeaky wheels — auto workers (no pun intended), Wall Street banks, homeowners facing foreclosure — it’s easy forget the tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines who have returned home with life-altering disabilities and who, in this unusually stunted and brutally competitive job market, are at an immediate disadvantage. Not to mention, as taxpayers and compassionate Americans, we are no less obligated to take care of them now than in normal economic circumstances. This latest report from Veterans for Common Sense indicates that we have just begun to realize the cost. It also spells out the kinds of personal battles our vets are already facing in a system that was never quite ready to handle their numbers from the outset.
Read the full report here, but here are some takeaways:
The number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans receiving treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities skyrocketed from 13,000 to over 400,000 in the last four years, according to VA data obtained exclusively by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS).
Of the Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans treated by VA, nearly 178,000 were diagnosed with a mental health condition, including 105,000 diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The percentage of recent war veterans returning home with a mental health condition continues to climb steeply, from 14 percent in 2004 to 45 percent in 2008.
Despite the enormous growth in healthcare demand, VCS found little evidence that VA is correctly forecasting future demand among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. This could mean VA may be ill-equipped to handle a sharply increasing patient and disability claim load. An analysis by VCS indicates the number of veterans of these two wars receiving care from VA could soar to between 700,000 and one million within 10 years.
Furthermore, according to the report and based on Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) statistics, there were some 625,000 backlogged disability claims and 184,000 appeals claims as of January. A claim qualifies for “backlog” when the claimant must wait more than six months for a disability rating to define and guarantee his or her monthly payments from the VA. “With some minor fluctuation, VA reports veterans wait, on average, more than six months for an initial disability rating decision from VA,” according to the Veterans for Common Sense. “If a veteran or family member appeals a VBA decision, then the veteran waits another 1,419 days (nearly four more years) for an answer.”
Considering the wide range and severity of injuries incurred by our servicemen and women in both Iraq and Afghanistan, waiting that long for a claim to go through could spell disaster for a vet trying to keep a family afloat. Particularly if their disability renders them incapable of full-time work — a 100 percent rating for example — and the VA becomes a chief source of income. According to VCS, there were nearly 1,800 homeless Iraq and Afghanistan vets last year. Surely, they will join a much greater percentage of the civilian population who will be squeezed out into the streets in coming months and years, but the veterans’ plight is a sad tattoo of all the mistakes made over the last decade, and the burden they will carry into the next, shadowing a generation, or more, with still unknowable economic and social burdens.