Saturday, February 28, 2009

Obama's VA Budget Proposal Aims to Eliminate Benefits Claims Backlog

Obama's VA Budget Proposal Aims to Eliminate Benefits Claims Backlog

Written by Jason Leopold
Saturday, 28 February 2009 06:00
By Jason Leopold

President Barack Obama took bold steps this week to repair the damage his predecessor George W. Bush left at the Department of Veterans Affairs, proposing a sharp increase to the agency's budget and introducing new initiatives to deal with a massive backlog in benefits claims.

At the same time, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced they would convene an emergency meeting to address the spike in suicides among active-duty soldiers.
Under the Bush administration, the VA suffered through massive budget shortfalls--$1 billion in 2005 alone-- due, in part, to Bush’s political cronies who downplayed the agency’s financial needs and failed to take into account the costs associated with treating veterans injured in Afghanistan and Iraq. Previous GAO reports found that the VA used controversial accounting during the height of the Iraq war to justify cuts to veteran’s healthcare enacted by the Bush administration.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office released a little known report that said VA officials, in the last days of the Bush administration, continued to lowball their budget estimates to Congress to keep spending down.

"VA's use, without explanation, of cost assumptions and a workload projection that appear unrealistic raises questions about both the reliability of VA's spending estimates and the extent to which VA is closing previously identified gaps in noninstitutional long-term care services," according to the GAO report released in late January.

The GAO concluded that in the final days of the Bush administration VA underestimated its 2009 budget for nursing home care by about $112 million and misleads Congress about treating veterans in hospices by $144 million.

But Obama’s appointees have begun the process of repairing the damage.

In his fiscal year 2010 budget unveiled Thursday, Obama proposed a 15 percent increase to VA’s budget, from $97.7 billion this fiscal year to $112.8 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2009 on top of the $1.4 billion already set aside for VA projects in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

His proposal for the agency would fund a radical overhaul of VA’s technological infrastructure and aims to eliminate an average six-month wait to have disability claims processed. As of September 2008, 330,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have filed disability claims to the VA, according to the agency. Yet, 54,000 are still waiting for the VA to confirm their claims were received. The average wait for a disability claim is more than six months.

Additionally, according to VA's Inspector General, 25 percent of the VA's 5.5 million patients have to wait more than 30 days for a doctor’s appointment.

Obama’s budget proposal would also pay for a program to provide healthcare to non-disabled veterans who earn more than $30,000 a year. Under the administration of former President George W. Bush, those veterans did not quality for VA administered health care. The Obama administration said that by 2013 about 500,000 of the qualifying “Priority 8” veterans would become eligible for the benefits.

Through a pilot project with non-profit organizations, Obama’s proposed budget would also aim to provide housing and job training to homeless veterans and veterans at risk of becoming homeless. More than 200,000 veterans are homeless, according to VA figures.

The budget also aims to allow veterans who are medically retired from active duty to keep their full VA disability compensation along with their retired pay and would expand VA mental health screening and treatment with a focus on reaching Veterans in rural areas via mobile health clinics and “vet centers.”

Gen. Eric Shinseki, the newly minted Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said VA’s “success must encompass cost-effectiveness.”

“We are stewards of taxpayer dollars, and we will include appropriate metrics to accurately gauge the quality of our care and the effectiveness of our management processes.”

But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, said that while the proposed budget increases are a positive sign, she believes “we need to move quicker to get our 'Priority 8' veterans within the system.

“That's one area I'll be looking at," Murray said Thursday.

Obama’s budget increases for the VA comes on the same day Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Shinseki announced that they will soon convene a meeting to try and determine if the epidemic of military suicides is the result of deficiencies in the VA’s screening process or problems in the diagnosis or treatment of active duty service members who suffer from psychological problems.

The meeting was requested earlier this month by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-HI, chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and ranking committee member Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC.

"The rise in active duty suicides is one piece of a larger mental health crisis faced by service members and veterans,” Akaka said Thursday. “Healing and mitigating the invisible wounds of war among active duty and veterans is both a matter of sacred obligation and strong national defense.”

In January, at least two-dozen members of the military committed suicide, a figure that surpassed the number of combat-related deaths reported by all branches of the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the so-called global war against terrorism. The spike can be attributed to multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2008, according to Paul Sullivan, executive director of veterans advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), 12,000 veterans under VA care attempted suicide — about 33 a day.

Recently, Sullivan’s organization prepared a devastating report, “Looking Forward – The Status and Future of VA,” which contains voluminous information culled from internal Department of Defense and VA documents about the alarming number of suicide attempts among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the skyrocketing number of mental health cases that VA officials have so far failed to properly treat or diagnose, and the substandard quality of healthcare veterans have received since the combat operations began in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq nearly two years later.

Still, Sullivan said he is “pleased” with Obama’s proposed budget for the agency as it provides much needed funding to “pay for the healthcare and disability benefits of more than 5.5 million deserving veterans.”

“While we await additional details on specific VA programs expected to be released by VA during the next few months, we are pleased with the substantial increase proposed by our new President and VA Secretary,” said Sullivan, who will testify before Congress March 10 about VA’s budget needs.

There is no explanation as how the VA is going to clear up the 800,000 claims that are on appeal in a timely manner or any type of manner, I know some veterans that have been waiting more than 5 years on appeals........

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