Veterans waiting for decisions from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can wait for months, sometimes even years for rulings on their cases and the awarding of benefits. According to a study by the nonprofit media outlet The Bay Citizen and its parent company, the Center for Investigative Reporting, recent media attention has resulted in no improvement in health care for veterans, who face long waits and wildly varying levels and standards of care. Veterans in urban areas are particularly underserved, facing wait times that are often twice as long as their counterparts in rural areas.
A chart and interactive map published by the Citizen detail which VA hospitals in the nation are the slowest at processing patients and delivering care. New York City and Waco, Texas are the worst-ranked, with patients waiting more than a year on average, but even at mid-level hospitals like California’s facilities in Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego, wait times on injuries ranging from back pain to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury are, on average, about nine months.
In the intervening months, veterans are left to languish in the private care system or to make do as best they can. The Citizen article tells the story of Adam Fields, a former Marine who returned from Iraq to Modesto, California after multiple tours. Fields, who survived multiple vehicular rollovers and a series of concussions, described his experience with the VA as “a slap in the face.”
Now Fields lives in Stockton, two hours from the nearest VA hospital, driving a scrap metal truck to support his wife and 5-year-old son. Repeated brain injuries have left him with severe gaps in his short term memory.
“Sometimes I get in the car, and I forget where I’m going,” he said. “If the VA approved my claim, I could afford to take time off to get regular treatment.”
Fields has been waiting since November of 2010.
A new $300 million computer system and the hiring of some 3,300 claims processors have accomplished little toward alleviating the backlog of patients stranded in bureaucratic limbo in the VA system. Officials have pledged to eliminate the backlog of patients by 2015, but with more and more veterans filing claims faster than the current system can process them, the program is on track to face even bigger backlogs in the future, with even longer wait times.
About 1.3 million veterans applied for benefits last year, a group made up of personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a Vietnam veteran population who are on the threshold of old age. Vietnam vets also face a slew of health complications that the government now admits result from exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
Ironically, improvements in battlefield medicine have resulted in higher survival rates from combat injuries, leading to multiple deployments for combat personnel. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are entering the health care system with more extensive injuries and a longer, more complicated list of health problems. Returning soldiers are often saddled with financial and personal issues resulting from long deployments with low pay.
“We’re seeing people break and snap like we’ve never seen before,” said Shad Meshad, the director of the National Veterans Association. Meshad, who served in Vietnam, pointed to sharp uptick in military suicides in recent years.
“When soldiers come home from two, three or four tours with post traumatic stress disorder and hit these kinds of walls, they can get frustrated and just give up,” he said.
According to a report from May, an estimated 18 U.S. veterans commit suicide every day.
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Correction: This story originally referred to the Bay Citizen as a newspaper.