Thousands of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental health problems are encountering an overburdened benefits system, and officials and veterans groups worry that the challenge could grow as the nation remains at war.
The disability benefits and health care systems that provide services for about 5 million American veterans have been overloaded for decades, with a current backlog of more than 300,000 claims. And as of Aug. 1, nearly 150,000 National Guard and reservist veterans became eligible for health care and benefits because they were mobilized to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. That number is rising.
But President Bush’s fiscal 2005 budget calls for cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims, and some veterans report long waits for benefits and confusing claims decisions.
“I love the military; that was my life. But I don’t believe they’re taking care of me now,” said Staff Sgt. Gene Westbrook, 35, of Lawton, Okla. Paralyzed in a mortar attack near Baghdad in April, he has received no disability benefits because his paperwork is missing. He is supporting his wife and three children on his regular military pay of $2,800 a month as he awaits a ruling on whether he will receive $6,500 a month from the VA for his disability.
Through the end of April, the most recent accounting the VA could provide, a total of 166,334 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan had separated from military service, and 26,633 – 16 percent – had filed benefits claims with the VA for service-connected disabilities. Less than two-thirds of those claims had been processed, leaving more than 9,750 recent veterans waiting.
Officials expect those numbers to increase as the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continues.
“I think we’re doing OK now, but I am worried,” VA Secretary Anthony Principi said in a recent interview. “We don’t have a good handle on the extent to which the demand for care and benefits will be a year or five years from now.”
One of the most challenging elements of providing for recently returned veterans is the disconnect between the Defense Department and the VA, Principi said. His department has been working to streamline the process, he said, placing VA staff at 136 bases nationwide and at military medical centers.
But people like Westbrook still fall into a no man’s land.
Westbrook was deployed to Iraq in January as a drill sergeant, sent to train Iraqi army recruits. While on duty April 28 south of Sadr City in Baghdad, he was hit by a mortar shell, and the shrapnel severed his spine. He is now paralyzed from the chest down, has limited movement in his right arm, and battles constant infections. His wife takes care of him full time.
Though Westbrook praises the way the Army has treated him since his injury, including providing excellent medical care, he has struggled to make it on his regular pay since he returned July 14. What injured or ill veterans are finding when they return from overseas is a complex set of government processes for reviewing whether they will receive financial help. They must navigate two of the largest U.S. government bureaucracies in the VA and the Pentagon, and multiple medical review boards assess the extent of their injuries.
Even with the current backlog and the prospect of staffing cuts, VA officials are trying to increase the department’s visibility, reaching out to new veterans to make sure they are aware of the services they can receive and urging them to apply.
Principi said he recently sent letters to 178,000 veterans explaining the available benefits. The department is trying to keep wait times down by giving recent veterans higher priority, aiming for benefit claims that are filled within 100 days, he said. Currently, the VA takes about 160 days per claim, and 60,000 to 70,000 new claims come in each month.
There is also a more concerted effort to identify veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health problem that experts estimate affects about 15 percent of veterans. Principi said he believes mental health concerns could become a dominant issue for the VA as insurgent warfare places new pressures on U.S. troops and American society places more emphasis on mental health.
A Government Accountability Office report issued Sept. 20 concluded that the VA does not have enough information to determine if it can handle a rush of PTSD cases.
“The system is already strained, and it’s going to get strained even worse,” said David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans.
For veterans, the VA’s system for evaluating disability claims can be the most frustrating element. Through the end of August, the agency had about 330,000 cases waiting to get a “rating,” or a percentage figure approved by an evaluation board that decides how much a disabled veteran will receive monthly from the VA.
The ratings system uses a complex guide to calculate, for example, how disabling it is to lose a foot or to be blinded in one eye. Soldiers are rated from zero percent to 100 percent disabled, and compensation varies from nothing to thousands of dollars each month. Those rated 100 percent disabled are eligible to receive indefinite monthly payments aimed at allowing them to live without working.
Board decisions can take months as they weigh the severity of injuries and make sure they were suffered while the veteran was in the service. Appeals of such decisions can take years, and board decisions can be re-evaluated.
Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the VA is woefully underfunded and unprepared. “The VA is not ready for an influx of new veterans from the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Evans said.