Saturday, November 25, 2017

Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits


American military members hurt in service to their country should not have to wait a lifetime for the benefits they deserve. But that’s a reality of the disability process at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which hasn’t made paying benefits a priority and needs a hard kick from Congress to clean up its act.

The veterans benefits system is a century-old behemoth that has not kept pace with the times or the demands on its resources. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, the system pays out more than $78 billion each year to 5 million beneficiaries. But there also are more than 470,000 veterans who have been denied benefits and appealed — and their cases are grinding through the claims process at a glacial pace, with some cases taking years if not decades to resolve.

It would be one thing if the backlog was caused by complex cases or fraud. But according to the department, the main cause of the delays is a design flaw that fed appeals with simple errors into a legal system designed to handle more complicated cases. Thousands of cases corrupted by no more than typographical errors have jammed up the flow, causing the processing of cases to slow, and for wait times to grow longer. The New York Times reported scores of cases have waited 25 years for an answer; and another 22 have been waiting more than three decades.

A new law Congress passed this summer seeks to expedite the process by assigning claims to one of three tracks depending on the complexity of an appeal. The department intends to hire hundreds of additional staff in the coming months to speed up the appeals process. But lawyers involved say the reforms miss a fundamental problem: Cases are so plagued with a vast number of errors that they end up getting bounced around the system for years as officials work to clean up the details. With so many flaws on the front end, advocates fear the reforms will fall short and that Congress will move on.

In a report published this year, the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, noted the VA was taking steps to speed up the decisionmaking process. But it also noted that the caseload for the Board of Veterans Appeals — the final arbiter of cases — had grown about 20 percent from 2014 to 2015, and that without stronger action, average delays could increase by 50 percent or more, to beyond eight years, by 2026.

The VA said it is working across a broad front to improve its staffing and response times. But these are systemic problems going back years and ingrained in the VA culture. A Gainesville man who hurt his back 34 years ago while serving in the Coast Guard got something of a reprieve after Sen. Bill Nelson intervened in his case. But it shouldn’t fall to veterans or to individual lawmakers to hound the agency into doing its job. The system needs to function in a fair, timely manner for everybody.

The Trump administration and Congress need to follow through on these reforms, give the VA the resources it needs and hold the agency accountable. Men and women in uniform injured in service to their country should not have to wait years to get the benefits they have earned.


Editorial: Strengthening the ties that bind in Seminole Heights following 4 killings

During this weekend of giving thanks, let’s recognize the Seminole Heights community for remaining united and committed to their neighborhood as residents cope with the stress and fear following a series of murders. Their response as police continue ...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Editorial: St. Petersburg should revisit approach to historic preservation

St. Petersburg is headed down a slippery path in the name of historic preservation. After a group of 10 property owners in the Old Northeast neighborhood won approval earlier this year to become a one-block historic district, two more groups of neigh...
Published: 11/22/17
Updated: 11/24/17

Editorial: Senate should not repeal health insurance mandate to pay for tax cuts

There are all sorts of problems with the massive tax cut legislation the Senate is expected to vote on this week. Wealthy individuals and corporations benefit more than the poor and the middle class; by 2027, about half of all taxpayers would see a t...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Editorial: Congress should help Florida agriculture recover from Irma

Editorial: Congress should help Florida agriculture recover from Irma

Florida agriculture took a beating in September from Hurricane Irma, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses across the citrus, sugar, cattle and dairy industries. Yet despite a personal plea from Gov. Rick Scott, the Trump administrat...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Editorial: Ken Hagan should drop effort to recover attorney’s fees in ethics complaint

Editorial: Ken Hagan should drop effort to recover attorney’s fees in ethics complaint

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan says he’s standing on principle in his effort to collect $7,800 spent defending him against ethics charges that eventually were dismissed.If so, it’s the wrong principle. But Hagan’s strident position rings ...
Published: 11/21/17
Updated: 11/24/17

Another voice: Wall isn’t a lifesaver, it’s a boondoggle

The first stage of President Donald Trump’s controversial border wall project ended last week, while the prospects for any more construction — and even what type of wall — remain uncertain.A Border Patrol agent was killed and his partner seriously wo...
Published: 11/21/17
Updated: 11/22/17

Another voice: Time for Republicans to denounce this tax nonsense

Mick Mulvaney, the phony deficit hawk President Donald Trump tapped to oversee the nation’s budget, all but admitted on Sunday that the GOP tax plan currently before the Senate is built on fiction. Senators from whom the public should expect more — s...
Published: 11/20/17
Updated: 11/21/17
Editorial: Florida should restore online access to nursing home inspections

Editorial: Florida should restore online access to nursing home inspections

In a state with the nation’s highest portion of residents over 65 years old and more than 80,000 nursing home beds, public records about those facilities should be as accessible as possible. Yet once again, Florida is turning back the clock to the da...
Published: 11/20/17

Another voice: A time of reckoning on sexual misconduct

Stories about powerful men engaging in sexual misconduct are becoming so common that, as with mass shootings, the country is in danger of growing inured to them. But unlike the tragic news about that latest deranged, murderous gunman, the massive out...
Published: 11/20/17

Another voice: Trump does the right thing for elephants; he shouldn’t back down now

There is bad timing, and then there is this. Last week, an apparent military coup placed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in custody, ushering in a new period of political uncertainty. A few days later, the Trump administration announced that Zimba...
Published: 11/19/17
Updated: 11/22/17