Veterans Affairs wait times get spotlight ahead of federal holiday

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Veterans Affairs leaders are struggling to address what ranks among the biggest backlog of claims in roughly a decade.

A former state lawmaker is using Veterans Day to draw attention to veterans’ issues, including delayed medical treatment at Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers.

Jimmie Smith of Inverness will lead a vehicle caravan Wednesday around a VA medical center in Gainesville as part of a national campaign calling for more accountability.

“We need to raise awareness of the fact that there are literally veterans dying from lack of care because of canceled or delayed appointments,” Smith said.

The holiday demonstrations come as hundreds of thousands of veterans remain on a waitlist for VA medical treatment. Smith, who now serves as director of Concerned Veterans for America in Florida, described the system as broken. He hopes the events shine a brighter light on the issue.

“It shouldn’t just be a wave and thank you and a parade,” Smith said of the federal holiday. “(We need) to ensure that the wounds of war are taken care of and those who put their lives on the line in the military are able to get the care they need.”

Department of Veterans Affairs leaders are struggling to address what ranks among the biggest backlog of claims in roughly a decade. In response, the federal agency plans to hire thousands of claim processors and begin ordering mandatory overtime for processors.

Still, it may take years for the case log to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to the VA. That backlog, Smith said, should come with consequences.

“The majority of the leaders at those facilities will end up getting bonuses,” Smith said. “We’re calling for a freeze to VA official bonuses until that veterans appointment backlog reaches zero. What kind of company would give a bonus to a subordinate for failing?”

Florida is home to more than 1.4 million veterans and ranks third in the nation for veteran residents. The Department of Veterans Affairs, however, projects Florida will rank as the second-highest by 2040.

Democratic Sen. Victor Torres is among the more than 603,000 veterans awaiting VA attention. In October, the Orlando-area lawmaker tore into the federal agency. They, he told lawmakers, have yet to address a two-year-old claim.

Torres — a Marine Corps veteran — characterized the COVID-19 delays as a  “B.S.” excuse.

“We need to straighten this out,” he said during a committee meeting. “We should have the VA here today.”

Torres isn’t the only lawmaker calling for action. Two other state lawmakers are urging Congress to formally recognize and address the “epidemic of suicide” among military veterans in the United States in the upcoming Legislative Session. The measures, they hope, will prompt Congress to devote more resources to the agency. A total of 553 Florida veterans died of suicide in 2019, according to the VA, and the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have only aggravated that trend.

Other lawmakers, meanwhile, are questioning whether the Florida National Guard should deny active duty combat orders absent of a war declaration by Congress.

Smith contends the current state of affairs falls short of the VA Mission Act. Signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, the program aimed to help veterans avoid lengthy wait times by allowing them to seek care at private hospitals and from doctors in private practice.

Rollout of the act, however, has been turbulent.

“We have learned that they’re doing everything they can to suggest veterans to stay within the VA Health Care System, even though there could be a delay, even though it could potentially not be the quality care they need or the timely care they need,” Smith said.

Smith stressed that a full rollout of the Mission Act is needed to cut VA wait times. They must also be more transparent about wait times. Otherwise, he said, veterans may continue to live with pain and untreated or undiagnosed ailments.

Jason Delgado

Jason Delgado covers news out of the Florida State Capitol. After a go with the U.S. Army, the Orlando-native attended the University of Central Florida and earned a degree in American Policy and National Security. His past bylines include WMFE-NPR and POLITICO Florida. He'd love to hear from you. You can reach Jason by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter at @byJasonDelgado.


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