Schram: What to do about vets' claims? Pay them - now



The U.S. economy has responded more slowly than many predicted to the Obama stimulus plan. Unemployment has soared to a 25-year high. For months we heard about stimulus projects that were "shovel-ready." Now we know what the politicians were shoveling.

Today many experts say a second round of stimulus will be needed. Yet Republicans who opposed the first stimulus as too costly and too porky still prefer to do it with tax cuts. Perhaps we can do the job without more shovels or more tax cuts.

On July 13, The New York Times published a report by James Dao of front-page significance (never mind that it was way back on page A-10): The Department of Veterans Affairs' perpetual backlog of unprocessed claims of military veterans has soared to a high of 400,000. Six years ago, the VA's backlog of 253,000 was considered unacceptable.

The VA says it has reduced the average delay in processing claims to less than half a year. But that figure doesn't take into account the ordeal the VA imposes upon veterans once the processing begins.

Shamefully, VA adjudicators often adopt an adversarial mindset toward veterans. They challenge thousands of veterans' claims in ways that are mindless and disrespectful, a sad truth I discovered in researching my 2008 book, "Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those who Fight Our Battles."

Inexperienced VA adjudicators routinely challenge and deny veterans' claims of combat-related disabilities. Example: Army military policeman Eric Adams, of Tampa, led a truck convoy in Iraq, when a roadside bomb exploded in front of his van and a tractor-trailer smashed into him from the rear. First, the VA adjudicator said he hadn't been in combat because he was just an MP. Later, an adjudicator ruled he didn't have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though two VA doctors had diagnosed it.

The VA unconscionably drags out cases for years and even decades. Denials are often appealed, overturned, but remanded back to the original adjudicator, who finds new grounds for another denial. Yet in the end almost 90 percent of the claims are eventually approved. In the end, Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes has noted, the result is not unlike the way the Internal Revenue Service handles most tax refunds. The IRS pays refunds to most and just reviews a small percentage of the tax returns. Why can't the VA do something similar?

Here's how we can stimulate the economy: Pay our military veterans the benefits we owe them - right now! We can treat VA benefits claims like IRS tax returns. Select a sampling, perhaps 10 percent to 25 percent, to be reviewed - and immediately pay the claims of the rest.

"That's a great idea - let's do it," said House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif. "I endorse it completely."

He said Vietnam War veterans are still being challenged for disability claims due to exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange - stop challenging and start paying. And veterans from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan who were in war zones must be presumed to have been in combat.

Filner, whose committee has become Washington's most active advocate for VA reforms, suggested another way of accomplishing the same goal. "Let the VA send a check - immediately - for a 30-percent disability to every veteran who filed a claim." Presume that minimum disability level and pay it now. Then the VA can review claims for greater disability. Once they are proven, pay the veterans the rest of what they deserve.

Pay the veterans and they will quickly shovel it back into the economy - like tax cuts. Except we will be repaying men and women who truly need and merit the money, unlike tax cuts given to folks because they have off-shore tax shelters.

For too long, we have inflicted unconscionable delays and injustices upon men and women who fought our battles. Now they are shovel-ready - and willing to serve us again.


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