By Kelly Kennedy – Staff writer
A new report from Veterans for Common Sense comes as a reminder of what the Veterans Affairs Department needs to fix: backlogged disability cases, too many suicide attempts and patients waiting weeks to see mental health providers.
But it’s also a predictor of what’s ahead: In a bad economy, fewer veterans will have good civilian health care plans.
A variety of factors will add to the pressure on VA’s patient load. Congress just awarded veterans who deploy five years of free health care after they leave service; more people are seeking mental health help; VA is catching more problems by screening veterans for brain injuries and mental health issues; and President Barack Obama just announced a troop surge in Afghanistan.
VA’s 2010 budget proposal is due out in April, and new VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will have to break his department’s habit of budgeting low and claiming it can make do with what it has if he wants to impress the veterans groups that have been pushing for more funding since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.
“He will have to streamline processes,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. “He needs to hire more staff. He needs to ask for more money. He needs to remove top leaders who are bogging down the claims process.”
In his confirmation hearing in January, Shinseki said he planned to come up with a “credible budget” and acknowledged that VA needs to move past barriers to care, such as backlogs and too few doctors. “I intend to be a forceful advocate for veterans,” he said at the time.