We who oppose calls to privatize the work of the Veterans Affairs Department are sorely tested at times. Complaints two years ago of unreasonably long waits for care at VA health facilities led to “reforms” in several VA programs.
In 2013, applications for VA disability benefits were piling up, with some claims languishing for over a year. The remedy – streamlining the process for judging disability claims – was not done carefully.
The new computerized system demanded less evidence to prove disability. Examiners were given less time to spend with the applicants, forcing them to make rushed evaluations. It was inevitable that some veterans would exploit these weaknesses to obtain unwarranted disability payments or pad their checks.
As a result, the plan to unclog the pipeline for disability claims has ended up reclogging it with fraudulent ones. Veterans with great needs are bumped out of appointments by fakers. And money that could go to those too disabled to work a regular job gets diverted to the well-bodied.
Veterans themselves are complaining about the scams. Here are two stories as reported in the Wall Street Journal:
Brian Jacobson spent more than a year on roadside patrol in Iraq’s Diyala province. He justly receives disability compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. But when he was applying for the benefit, a clinic staffer advised him thus: Act “like you have a screw loose in your head. Wear clothes with holes that haven’t been washed in a while. And act like you’ve been homeless.”
Jacobson knew he was fully qualified for disability compensation, but the coaching, he said, made him “feel dishonest.”
Another veteran of the Iraq War, Jack Murphy, said he was told to say that he had “horrible nightmares” and was “too shellshocked to do anything.” He was to add that he’s impotent, even as his wife was expecting. As for his pregnant wife, the friends reportedly said, “They don’t know anything.”
Adding to the problem has been an easing of standards for obtaining disability payments. For example, proof of a traumatizing event in war was once required for claiming PTSD. Now it isn’t, which helps explain why PTSD claims nearly doubled from 2011 to 2015.
One wishes these applicants, though a minority of veterans, would refuse to lie their way to benefits that could go to their suffering comrades. But human nature being such, it’s obvious that if you open a path to receiving a monthly check with lies, some people will try to take it. This applies to all government programs.
Veterans’ disability payments have soared from about $15 billion in 2000 to over $60 billion last year. Such discussions must also note the very good reasons for rocketing disability costs, unrelated to fraud.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn American troops into very dangerous and stressful missions, creating a growing population of injured and sick veterans. Improvements in battlefield medicine are saving the lives of many grievously injured troops who would otherwise not have survived. They return home with broken bodies.
Those wounded in service to their country are entitled to the best of care. If their injuries impede their ability to work, then a monthly disability check is their due. But, though all veterans deserve thanks for their service, they are not entitled to commit fraud.
The solution for long waits – whether for decisions on disability claims or receiving medical attention – should be more staff to do the work. Opening opportunities for cheating serves neither taxpayers nor veterans stuck in the resulting gridlock. It creates unfairness all around.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.
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