By Pi-Yi G. Mayo, CELA

It’s been said that navigating the Social Security and Medicaid systems is a “sprint,” while applying for Veterans Administration (VA) benefits is a “marathon.” The relevant law is far more complex and the process is riddled with challenges. In 2009, the VA set itself the goal of the resolving all claims—with 98 percent accuracy– within 125 days of application. As of June 2012, two-thirds of them were taking longer than that.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have added significantly to the administration’s workload, with claims surging 48 percent in the last three years. But the VA’s problems were building for decades prior to those wars, and another of its stated objectives– eliminating 80 percent of its backlog by 2016– is unlikely to be achieved.

The agency admits to a 16 percent error rate in determining financial benefits, and it’s clear that better training is needed for staff. Even worse, there’s no systematic way to communicate with the VA concerning in-process claims. Unlike the Medicaid system, it’s nearly impossible for applicants, attorneys or others to speak to an administrator about a specific case. I once waited two and a half hours at a local veterans center to request an update on the status of a client’s application.

The VA’s antiquated paper-based recordkeeping poses another challenge. A computerized Veterans Benefit Management System is to be launched in 16 regional offices by September, with implementation throughout the rest of the VA slated for 2013. But some fear that budget constraints could cause delays, and working through the agency’s backlog of paper claims could require decades.

Perhaps worst of all is the VA’s hamster wheel of an appeals process. It can take over a year for the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to determine if a request has merit, at which point, the case is referred down one level in the appeals chain. It can languish there for yet another year. It’s not unusual for an application to involve five separate decisions, and the process is clogged at each step.

I fought one client’s case for six years, with the VA claiming to have no record of his having served in Vietnam. I finally succeeded in obtaining benefits for him after locating a military museum photograph that identified him as having fought in KheSanh, one of the war’s bloodiest battles.

It’s a scandal that men and women who have sacrificed for our nation should have to endure the indignities of such a dysfunctional system. Veterans have been assured that their benefits will remain intact despite budget constraints. But “administrative” cuts are on the table, and that doesn’t bode well for an agency that’s already struggling.

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