The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to make national headlines as veterans across the country face excessive wait times for the care they earned with their service. But a new piece of draft legislation in Congress could fix this problem — a problem Reno veterans like me have come to know all too well.
The Reno VA Regional Office has been plagued by incompetency and misconduct since at least 2011, when investigators first found instances of erroneous, delayed and missing claims.
As a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who retired in 1995, I’ve been dealing with the VA for over two decades. But my problems with the Reno benefits office began in 2011, when I filed a disability claim due to a condition from my service in the Gulf War.
It took three years for the VA to adjudicate my disability claim. When they finally contacted me, the news was not what I expected — the agency intended to close my claim, saying I had missed appointments of which I was never notified. It took congressional intervention before the VA decided my claim wasn’t closed, but rather just pending additional information. During my compensation and pension exam, the doctor informed me that the reason for the botched claim was because my initial claim had been lost.
While my claim was eventually granted, many other Reno-area veterans continue to wait. It’s not too surprising since the Reno office was named the worst in the nation for processing claims in 2014, according to an investigation by the Reno Gazette-Journal. Investigators found Reno employees inaccurately handled benefits claims, resulting in delays, overpayments, underpayments and lost claims, like I experienced.
We were told the VA would work to resolve these issues. The Reno regional office director was put on leave and the facility cycled through several interim directors from July 2014 through September 2015.
Then the VA released another report.
Last July, investigators conducted surprise checks on 10 benefits offices across the country, and they found Reno employees had shredded documents related to veterans’ claims. Several of the documents had the potential to affect veteran benefits.
One actually prevented a veteran’s family from securing burial benefits during their time of grief.
The VA is supposed to provide timely access to quality care for our nation’s heroes, but that’s not what so many of us have experienced. To make matters worse, administrators have downplayed the problem of long wait times — VA Secretary Robert McDonald even asserted that the agency shouldn’t use wait times to measure success because Disneyland doesn’t.
The VA needs a functioning system to accurately keep records, a timely process to review claims, and accountability for employees whose negligence negatively impacts veterans and their families. That’s where the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act comes into play. This draft legislation would rework the VA system to hold employees to a higher standard and empower veterans to seek out private care when the VA fails to provide timely services. This would not only make sure veterans get the best care, but it would help reduce wait times across the board.
We need to be more vocal in calling for real reform. Veterans put their lives on the line to keep America safe. Lawmakers can make sure they’re taken care of when they return home by passing the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act.
Mario Alfonsi is the Nevada local director of Concerned Veterans for America.