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Opinion

Fri., April 1, 2005, midnight

Veterans deserve better

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald on Tuesday.

Military veterans who fight and are injured in service to their country shouldn’t have to come home and fight to get disability benefits.

Knight Ridder investigative reports found that soldiers who seek disability payments from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs face interminable delays, inconsistent rulings from state to state and a Byzantine appeals process.

Neither veterans nor taxpayers are well-served. The VA should move toward a streamlined system that sets clear standards for approving and denying claims nationwide. For example, no one should be penalized for living in Washington, D.C., instead of Washington state.

Disabled vets often wait years for a hearing. Some have died waiting. The men and women who sacrificed their health and well-being on our behalf deserve better.

The VA serves 25 million veterans. They are eligible for a range of benefits, including health care, burial and survivor benefits, education and home loans. Disability benefits account for $20 billion of the department’s $60 billion budget. The VA pays for severe injuries, such as amputated legs, and more complex ills such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Combat wounds and peacetime injuries also are covered.

When injured vets petition the VA, groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion provide volunteer “service officers” to help each vet navigate the claims system. Too often, well-intentioned volunteers are ill-trained to be of effective help: Poor guidance results in insufficient paperwork and other missteps that clog the pipeline.

Veterans who are denied payments have a chance to appeal. But the process, tellingly, is called the “hamster wheel.” In a seemingly endless loop, denied claims are sent up several layers of authority, then kicked back down for reconsideration. This makes it difficult to get a final decision.

Worse, each state has its own approval process. Washington state has a state-run quality-assurance program that provides training for service officers, monitors their work and holds them accountable for helping vets present well-founded claims. This ensures that marginal claims don’t clog the pipeline. In Florida, though, a hodge-podge of state, county and nonprofit workers sometimes work at cross purposes.

The backlog and inconsistencies aren’t fair to veterans. Vice Adm. Daniel Cooper, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, agrees. He, too, is disturbed by the reports’ findings.

In a recent memo to VA staffers, Vice Adm. Cooper wrote: “We may take umbrage at these articles, but we must learn from them and continue to improve by correcting the errors, the approach and the perceptions.” We commend him for his candor and his commitment to change.



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