Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Old and in the Way

As the “new vets” from Iraq and Afghanistan, just 2% of the veteran population, are given priority at the VA, the other 98% find themselves pushed to the rear of the line, now the forgotten of previous conflicts.

by Larry Scott

Bosnia, Somalia, the Gulf, Grenada, Vietnam, Korea, World War II, plus all the Cold War and peacetime veterans in between. Add them all up and you have about 23.5 million veterans, 98% of the U.S. veteran population. Add them all up and you have the veterans that are being pushed to the rear of the line by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA).

On April 24, 2008, the VA made a stunning announcement. They are going to set up a special call center to notify all 570,000 “new vets,” veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, of all available VA benefits. On the surface this appears to be a noble gesture. But, in the past, the VA has vigorously fought legislation that would have required them to notify ALL veterans of these benefits. Why? Too expensive, they claimed.

So, why the change and why now? And, why does this just apply to the “new vets,” those who make up just 2% of the veteran population? The VA has a history of denying that problems exist, then using quick-fix Band-Aids to make it appear that the problem has been solved. We find the VA short-staffed, especially in the area of mental health workers. So, they hire a few mental health specialists, many of them short-term contract workers, and consider the problem fixed. There is a backlog of 600,000 disability claims, so the VA hires a few more claims raters, and considers the problem fixed. Neither of the afore-mentioned Band-Aids addresses the long-term problems of mental health care or the claims backlog because not enough workers were hired to adequately solve either problem.
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Then came Walter Reed and the ensuing look at military and VA healthcare. To say that the Department of Defense (DoD) and VA got some bad press is putting it mildly. But, it was bad press that was well-deserved. The media had the VA running for cover. And, with the 2008 election looming large, politicians knew something must be done to mollify the angry outcries of the American public who didn’t want to see any more news videos about shoddy treatment of veterans.

I can almost hear the conversations among the political appointees who run the VA: “How can we make it LOOK LIKE we’ve solved the problems? How can we get the press and an angry public off our backs? And, how can we do it on-the-cheap?”

The answer was amazingly simple. Since most of the public was transfixed by the problems facing the “new vets,” the VA chose to pull out all the stops when it came to serving this 2% minority. It appears to have solved the problems enumerated by the VA brass: It LOOKS LIKE the VA is taking care of all veterans, the public thinks they are doing the right thing, and it is far less expensive to prioritize the needs of 2% of veterans than it is to provide adequate care and services for all 100%.

Then, the politicians, fearing reprisals in the voting booth, followed the VA’s lead. And, they both knew that with the proper public relations campaign the public would believe that ALL veterans were benefiting when, in reality, 98% of veterans were being ignored.

Here is what the VA and the politicians are doing for just 2% of the veteran population, those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan:

1. Priority healthcare at all VA facilities, making older vets wait months and even years for medical appointments and the simplest of procedures.

2. First-in-line placement at the Veterans’ Benefits Administration (VBA) when it comes to filing disability claims, even though many older vets have been waiting years for answers to their claims, facing financial hardships as they wait.

3. A new call center to provide information on all VA benefits, while many older vets still have no such knowledge because the VA has refused to do an “all vets” outreach such as this.

4. And, a plethora of new legislation from the 110th Congress designed to improve services ONLY for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Where is the outcry about 98% of veterans getting such lousy treatment? You won’t hear it from politicians of either party because most of them face re-election this year. If they can make a “2% Solution” look like “THE Solution” and sell it to the public, then truth be damned.

Congress has shown little interest in the big picture at the VA. In the past, Democratic Members had called for mandatory VA healthcare funding. But, that has fallen by the wayside with legislation stuck in Committee. Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, had been a huge supporter of mandatory funding. But, in a conversation late last year, Filner’s only response to the stalled legislation was, “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers.” That’s Capitol Hill code for: It’s not going to happen.

What is most surprising is that there is virtual silence from the veterans’ service organizations (VSOs) about this matter. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose members are almost entirely pre-Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, are playing the game and allowing the VA and the politicians to claim a victory on behalf of all veterans. The only VSO who has spoken out is the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

In a letter to VA Secretary James Peake dated April 25, 2008, the DAV’s Executive Director, David W. Gorman, said, “…the VA is evolving into a two-tiered system: one that pulls out all the stops when it comes to outreach and service to this newest generation of veterans, but also one that pays relatively scant attention to veterans from previous generations who have served and sacrificed for our nation as well.” Gorman added, “…the VA must not favor one generation of veterans over another. To do so, no matter how well intentioned, does a grievous disservice to all veterans.”

More importantly, where is the outcry from the 98% of veterans who are, once again, being delayed and denied by the VA? One would think we (because I fall into the category) would be filling up Internet bulletin boards and blogs with cries for equal treatment. Is it that we have bought into the public relations lie being perpetrated, or is it that we have just given up on a system that has let us down so many times before? Are we really content to allow a two-tiered VA system where older vets have instantly become second-class vets?

No veteran, young or old, will deny the needs of our “new vets.” But, logic and fairness dictate that their needs are NOT greater than those of older veterans, but JUST AS great.

So, while we older veterans have accepted the promises of our VSOs and the platitudes of our politicians, we find ourselves on the outside looking in, watching 2% of the veteran population getting the care, treatment and service that ALL veterans have earned. This could have been stopped. We have seen it coming since the Walter Reed debacle. But, we sat back and allowed the VA and the politicians to tell us what is best and allowed our VSOs to play politics instead of offering adequate representation. We should have been telling them that our VA services must be protected.

We have only ourselves to blame for being fooled by the VA, used by the politicians, ignored by most of our VSOs and ending up “Old and in the Way.”


posted by Larry Scott
Founder and Editor
VA Watchdog dot Org