The VA Claims Backlog: Yes, It’s An Outrage, But What Can Cities Do? Plenty.
In the past several weeks, there have been an increasing number of reports by the federal government (here and here) and in the media (see other stories here and here) about the travesty our veterans are facing as they wait–at times for years–to receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
There is no doubt this is a national disgrace. Combined with the fact that in 2012 there were an estimated 62,619 homeless veterans in our country, these are serious contradictions of our national priorities.
The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Eric Shinsecki has recently committed to reducing the egregious backlog of VA benefit claims to 125 days or less by 2015. But for the veteran with a complex benefit claim today, who may be currently unemployed or underemployed, with an increasingly precarious housing situation that threatens to put his or her family’s stability at risk, the promise that the VA will get to their claim sometime in the next approximately 650 days is hardly reassuring.
While it is easy to point the blame at federal “incompetence” and/or lack of planning, these assertions, regardless of their merit, do nothing to address the current challenges of those who have served their country. It is of course imperative that we hold our federal delegations and the administration accountable for their actions (or lack thereof) to address the current state of affairs, but the question still remains, what can be done for our veterans now?
As the frequently cited quote from former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill goes, “All politics is local.” In this situation, the solutions to many of the challenges facing our veterans must also be local.
More and more communities are stepping forward to improve the coordination of services for our veterans, convening local stakeholders to identify pragmatic steps that can be taken and tapping into local assets as effectively as possible.
In Phoenix, Ariz., stakeholders from the VA, non-profits, state and local government agencies have come together to coordinate their intake processes in a manner that allows them to quickly identify members of the homeless population who are most likely to die on the streets, and in the process consume the most public resources. In addition, the Arizona Department of Housing has included a set-aside for the homeless, some of whom are veterans, in the distribution of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
In Tacoma, Wash., leaders from the City, Pierce County, the VA and non-profits are continuing their work to implement and improve a coordinated intake process that has been in place for the past few years. Given this community’s proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of our most active military installations, the commitment and proactive leadership shown by local officials in improving services and opportunities for veterans has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in achieving successful, coordinated outcomes.
Also in Washington State, the City of Auburn’s Mayor and City Council have taken aggressive steps to situate their community as an attractive place for returning veterans to come and build a life. Through partnerships with the local community college, area employers, local offices of the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Veterans Affairs, Auburn has recognized their need to take action to not only help returning veterans, but also to tap in to the unique economic development opportunities these men and women present to the city and the region.
Whenever there is a problem, there is never a lack of people willing to yell and throw accusations about how awful something is. But the true testament to measure how much someone actually cares about an issue is how they acknowledge a problem, think carefully about what aspects of the problem they can control, and then act. Officials in Phoenix, Tacoma, Auburn, and other cities are doing just this.
Join them today and tell us what you and your city are doing to ensure our veterans receive the recognition of their service and sacrifices that they deserve.