Give Them a Break

Unfortunately, the agency has failed to process the applications in a timely manner, resulting in massive logjams. As of the end of September, reported the Chronicle's Lindsay Wise, only about 34,000 applicants, less than 12 percent, had received their benefits.

But Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki responded smartly to the crisis, quickly authorizing millions of dollars in emergency funds — up to $3,000 per student for housing and books, which became available Oct. 2 at the VA's 57 regional offices and online.

The Houston office responded well to the emergency action (as did many others), staying open later than usual, rearranging furniture to accommodate crowds and offering bottled water. Staff arrived as early as 3 a.m. that first day to find some vets already waiting. (They brought them chairs and served them coffee.)

So kudos to Shinseki and all the regional offices that came through for the veterans, and particularly to the veterans themselves, who waited patiently, many for several hours, for their checks. By the end of the day, the VA had processed more than 24,000 checks — about 14,000 at regional offices and about 10,000 online.

It is regrettable, though, that the logjam had to reach crisis proportions before being addressed. The VA placed part of the blame on colleges not responding promptly with final student numbers, which is quite plausible, and Shinseki promised that the process will be automated by next year.

But the VA has many other problems that are not so easily fixed, including a backlog of almost one million disability claims, some over a year old, waiting to be processed. (See yesterday's front page story by Wise, “World War II veterans snarled in VA backlog,” which addresses the plight of aging veterans and their long waits for disability benefits.) The Associated Press quoted Shinseki as saying that he and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are working to create a unified electronic record system to eliminate that problem. The system will take two years to develop.

Which raises the question of why such a momentous issue — getting benefits to veterans disabled in the course of fighting their country's wars — is only now being addressed. Systems and processes don't become outdated overnight.

Tom Tarantino is a policy associate for the 150,000-member Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and an Iraq war veteran. He told the Chronicle, “Just now, eight years into the war in Afghanistan and 45 years after Vietnam, are they working on updating their criteria for disabilities like post traumatic stress syndrome, for example.”

Shinseki is to be credited — along with his boss, President Barack Obama — for a strong commitment to bringing this mammoth bureaucracy, the largest health care system in the country, into the electronic age. It's a daunting task, and past performance does not inspire confidence. As Tarantino put it, the VA's track record is of “looking inward rather than embracing change, of waiting for problems to come to them.”

The most unfortunate aspect of such a mindset is that the problems that come to the VA are then visited on the very people the VA was created to protect — America's veterans.

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