Meridian Star

Columns

March 27, 2013

VA’s failures in Mississippi are not recent problems

MERIDIAN —    While recent national press attention to ongoing problems at Mississippi’s G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery Veterans Administration Medical Center in Jackson is welcome and needed, the failures of the overall VA service apparatus in Mississippi are not recent problems.

    In short, former U.S. Rep. Sonny Montgomery - Mississippi’s “Mr. Veteran” and author of the modern G.I. Bill that bears his name – must be spinning in his grave. There have been significant failures and poor service to veterans documented by state and local media since 2008.

    This month, the New York Times focused a national spotlight on complaints from five federal whistleblowers who accused the Jackson VA of missed diagnoses of fatal illnesses, improper sterilization of medical instruments and, in some cases, criminal conduct.

    The newspaper article documented alleged abuses going back to 2009 and VA investigations and reports based on those allegations. In addition, the federal Office of the Special Counsel documented allegations that VA managers instructed public affairs employees to tell the press that “no violations were found to have occurred.”

    On June 2, 2008, I wrote a lengthy news story for the Clarion-Ledger outlining the claims of a Mississippi whistleblower that brought to light improper benefit denials and poor service to veterans at the VA’s Jackson Regional Office.

    In that report, I uncovered documents that showed that that claims for Mississippi's then-233,888 military veterans - including Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans – weren’t being processed in a timely manner. Those claims led to a VA and congressional investigation.

    The information documented that in April 2008, claims at the U.S. Veterans Affairs' Jackson Regional Office were processed 53 percent slower than the national and regional average. That included claims from combat veterans seeking help for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

    The records showed that on April 30, 2008, the national average “days pending” on veterans’ claims ratings were 127.4 days while the Southern Area average was 127.5 days. But the average “days pending” for claims ratings in the VA's Jackson Regional Office was 194.8 days - a difference of 67 days.

    Also as a part of that story, I was able to make public an internal white paper produced by the VA’s Jackson Regional Office on March 28, 2008, that outlined an inspection of veterans’ claims folders by a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee special projects counsel. The Senate counsel made a two-day visit to the Jackson office in 2008 to examine the "consistency and quality" of the handling of claims ratings. The Senate committee staffer's findings included:

    n In post-traumatic stress disorder claims, the Senate counsel found “a pattern of improper and excessive development of stressors” (events or circumstances that cause traumatic stress) and that the VA "ignores valid information contained in the files” which results in “improper denials and poor service to veterans.”

    • A PTSD claim was denied to an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran because the veteran failed to return information on a specific VA form, but that the information requested was already contained in the veteran's claims folder.

    • The staffer found the Jackson VA office “lax on quality” and told VA personnel in Jackson that if the agency would “slow down” and be more thorough it would “get it right the first time and not have to re-work” claims.

    • The fact that in order to meet the VA’s system of “production quotas” to process claims, several failures resulted in “quick denial syndrome to achieve production.”

    Mississippi’s veterans deserve the best medical treatment and VA benefit claims service – and Mississippians should send that message loud and clear to the state’s congressional delegation and to the Obama administration. These problems have gone on far too long in our state.

    Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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