During the past four months, the Department of Veterans Affairs backlog of unfinished disability claims grew by more than 100,000, adding to an already mountainous backlog that is now close to topping one million.
The VA's claims backlog, which includes all benefits claims and all appeals at the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Board of Veterans Appeals at VA, was 803,000 on Jan. 5, 2009. The backlog hit 915,000 on May 4, 2009, a staggering 14 percent increase in four months.
The issue has become so dire that veterans now wait an average of six months to receive disability benefits and as long as four years for their appeals to be heard in cases where their benefits were denied.
Overhauling the VA represents one of the most daunting challenges facing the Obama administration after years of mismanagement and neglect by the Bush administration who stacked the agency with political cronies that kept the agency underfunded, wrapped in bureaucratic red tape and placed the interests of veterans last on a list of priorities.
Indeed, one of the VA's biggest failures during the Bush administration's tenure was its inability to fully implement critical components of the Mental Health Strategic Plan (MHSP) at regional offices throughout the country.
The MHSP, unveiled in 2004, would have provided veterans who show signs of suicide or are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder with immediate mental health care and eliminated the waiting period for receiving treatment.
In June 2007, in response to a VA inspector general's report that also criticized the VA's failure to implement the MHSP, William Feeley, the VA's undersecretary for health, operations and management, issued a memo requiring VA hospitals and outpatient treatment centers to provide urgent mental healthcare within 24 hours and non-urgent care to veterans within 14-days.
But Feeley, who was one of a handful of VA officials who received lucrative bonuses in 2006, admitted in a deposition last year that he never conducted any oversight to ensure his directives were being adhered to. In that deposition, Feeley said an uptick in veterans suicides and suicide attempts did not mean VA failed to provide proper care to veterans.
"A suicide does not mean negligence on the part of a medical center director or a network director," Feeley said. "Suicide occurs just like cancer occurs."
In his prior position as director of the Veterans Integrated Services Network in upstate New York, Feeley was required to implement several elements of the MHSP at the network's community-based outpatient clinics with a population of at least 1,500 veterans. But Feeley said in his deposition that he only read an executive summary of the MHSP after it was released in June 2004 and had no idea whether the clinics adopted the proposals.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki recently named Feeley, who veterans groups had have long demanded be fired, as the director of the VA's West New York Healthcare System in Buffalo, New York, removing him from a top position in Washington, yet leaving him employed with VA due to his prior civil service career with the agency.
To date, beyond a suicide hotline set up last year and thousands of newly hired mental health employees, the VA has failed to adopt a comprehensive suicide prevention program as outlined in the Feeley memo and the VA's 2004 MHSP.
In January and February, for the first time in military history, the number of battlefield suicides was higher than the number of combat deaths in the war zones, according to the Pentagon.
Last year, 140 U.S. soldiers committed suicide, a record high, and during the first four months of 2009, 64 U.S. soldiers have committed suicide. Military officials said a U.S. soldier is now more likely to commit suicide than a civilian and the Army has recently commissioned a $50 million study to explain the suicide epidemic.
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