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Back Home, Ex-Troops in Benefits Battle

While the quality of care at the Veterans Health Administration has rightly earned praise, ''if you have to wait six months to make an appointment, that's medical care denied.''

22Feb

The shoddy treatment of soldiers at a Walter Reed outpatient facility was detailed in a series of articles published this week by the Washington Post. The revelations, while disturbing, were hardly surprising to longtime watchers of the military health-care system. Indeed, veterans service organizations have long decried the medical care that military personnel receive from the government — and in particular, the Veterans Health Administration.

Admittedly, the treatment provided by the VHA has improved dramatically in the past fifteen years — a trend that observers say commenced with the selection of Dr. Kenneth Kizer as the agency's Undersecretary for Health in 1994. A number of recent studies have claimed that the VHA offers better care than most private sector health-care providers. Indeed, last June Business Week profiled the agency in an article titled "The Best Medical Care in the U.S."

While the quality of care at the VHA has rightly earned praise, access to that care continues to rankle most veterans groups. Waiting times at VHA facilities remain lengthy, say veterans advocates, who claim that in some locations, it takes six months just to get an initial appointment with a doctor — well beyond the agency's stated goal of 30 days. Notes David Gorman, executive director of the Washington office of Disabled American Veterans: "If you have to wait six months to make an appointment, that's medical care denied."

Chronic delays appear to be typical of the entire Department of Veterans Affairs. Within the VA, nowhere is this problem more evident than at the Veterans Benefits Administration, the unit charged with overseeing compensation payments made to disabled vets. Underfunded and overworked, the VBA is staggering under a massive backlog of cases — some 600,000 disability claims in all. Currently, it takes the VBA about six months to process an initial disability claim. (Read more about the travails of the VBA, and the veterans who call on it for support, in "Support Our Ex-Troops," the cover story for the March 2007 issue of CFO magazine.)

Veterans advocates say that increased funding — and improved training for VBA workers — could help ease the delays. But the current backlog isn't likely to go away anytime soon. Indeed, VBA-watchers worry that soldiers returning from the global war on terrorism could overwhelm the system. According to the most recently available figures, veterans returning from service in the Middle East have already filed more than 150,000 disability claims.

Says Quentin Kinderman, deputy director of the national legislative service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "The backlog of cases is getting bigger just as Iraq and Afghan vets are coming back."

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