Vets still lack timely health care

Life has been anything but easy for thousands of U.S. soldiers who have returned home from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In addition to bearing the physical and psychological effects of their time on the battlefield - amputated limbs, blindness, brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and more - many veterans have faced an uphill climb just trying to get their benefits.

As of two years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs had a backlog of about 400,000 disability claims, with some claims taking six months or longer to straighten out, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group.

Despite efforts to speed up the claims process, the backlog remains at about the same number now, VA officials said.

To make matters worse, the Department of Defense and the VA have lagged at making the transition to civilian life easy for soldiers.

According to a report issued in April by the Government Accountability Office, the departments still haven't developed a "one-stop shopping process" for soldiers that would provide standard discharge examinations, help with filing discharge claims, and assurances that vets don't get lost in a sea of paperwork.

The departments also don't have a joint system to make it easier to keep track of soldiers' medical histories. The system, the report said, was supposed to have been in place three years ago.

"They've treated our veterans like stepchildren," said U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who in 2006 became the first Iraq veteran elected to Congress.

"Our best and brightest are out there fighting for us, and they should be taken care of. But the way they were cared for ticked me off, and it's one of the reasons I ran for Congress in the first place."

A number of legislative and bureaucratic steps have been taken to improve the transition process: The VA announced an effort this year to track down 550,000 veterans and remind them of the benefits to which they are entitled, and Murphy helped pass legislation that allowed the VA to add 1,800 disability-claims processors.

But more needs to be done, he said.

"We had to change the philosophy first and start making our vets a real priority," Murphy said.

Diverse needs

As of last fall, about 300,000 veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) had used VA health services, according to VA officials.

Little attention has been paid, though, to the size and scope of their needs.

Some soldiers have come home with minor knee and back pain.

Some have traumatic brain injury (TBI), caused when explosives rattle the brain. TBI is recognized as the "signature injury" of the two wars, said Lori Maas, the Philadelphia VA's OIF and OEF program manager.

About 500 soldiers have needed care at four national polytrauma centers because they've lost their sight, hearing or limbs in addition to having TBI, Maas said.

VA officials are still trying to get a handle on the number of soldiers who will need mental and emotional care because of stress and depression associated with the wars. Those needs aren't always easy to recognize.

"Some things aren't evident in the short term. It may not be evident to [vets] that they need help with their problems," Maas said.

"I have to remind people that vets are coming from every walk of life in these wars. We have more women then we've ever seen. We've seen people over the age of 40 and 50. In that context, we're going to see a variety of different problems."

That unpredictability led to legislation that now entitles new vets to five years of free health care at VA facilities, Maas said.

Veterans can contact Lori Maas at 215-823-5915 or visit www.philadelphia.va.gov.