Nearly two years after the veterans’ health care scandal broke, hardly any meaningful change has occurred and now reports suggest a growing number of vets aren’t just having to wait for care but are being told they are ineligible.
The latest black eye for the Department of Veterans Affairs is a new report from the veterans group Swords to Plowshares, showing that more and more vets are being denied access to the VA system because of “bad papers,” the military term for anything less than an honorable discharge.
The report indicates that veterans since 2001 are more than twice as likely to be denied medical benefits for an “other than honorable” discharge than their counterparts from the Vietnam era and four times as likely as those who served in World War II. All told 10 percent of Marines have been denied under these circumstances while the rate across all branches stands at 6.5 percent.
In real numbers, 125,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being denied care due to “bad papers.”
Even those who regularly advocate for veterans admit this can be a thorny issue for the military.
“You can understand why the Pentagon and the VA would have to draw a distinction between the nature of the service and the nature of the benefits, so if you were kicked out of the military for terrible conduct, there’s a consequence potentially on the backside with your VA benefits,” said Pete Hegseth, a veterans advocate, who served both in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now a Fox News Channel contributor.
At the same time, Hegseth says the government’s policy punishes a lot of veterans for conduct that stems from their service to the United States.
“The problem becomes maybe you went to Afghanistan, suffer from post-traumatic stress and act out when you come home, which leads to a dishonorable discharge. Now you’re barred from VA benefits, but you’re the very person that needs those VA benefits. A lot of those people are falling through the cracks,” said Hegseth.
And sometimes the lesser status on a discharge is just bureaucratic.
“In some cases, we see ‘other than honorables’ given out much more quickly because a medical discharge or another form of discharge is either lengthier or more costly for the military,” said Hegseth.
He explained some of the red tape games that get played.
“Sometimes the military’s taking the easy way out. They’re just pushing people out the door because they don’t want to have to deal with it. And maybe there’s a cost trail they don’t want to deal with,” said Hegseth.
“You also have the the other side of the coin, where a veteran may be at the end of their service. They’re given an option to say, ‘Hey, you can either go down the medical discharge route and it might take a couple years because of all the paperwork and all the things that come with it. Or you can just jump out right now and get an ‘other than honorable’ and maybe you’ll get access to VA benefits,” said Hegseth.
He says many who took that gamble are now really hung out to dry.
“The problem is that line has shifted, so people who thought they qualified for benefits no longer do. As a result, they’re caught in the middle,” said Hegseth.
This would be enough of a headache for the VA, Hegseth says, but it still has a mountain of reforms to implement following the waiting time and falsified records scandal that rocked the department in May of 2014.
“Layer on top of all that the utter dysfunction of the VA, which can’t even care for the honorably discharged in a timely manner. Now they’re trying to deal with folks who have a questionable paperwork trail, maybe some barriers to entry because of their service and the nature of their discharge. It leads to them waiting longer with more uncertainty,” said Hegseth.
Has any progress been made at the VA in two years?
“Very little, unfortunately,” said Hegseth. “Veterans now have a choice card but they still can’t use it as widely or as rapidly as they would want. There’s been almost no accountability for those responsible for the wait list manipulation scandal. Veterans continue to wait for a long time,” said Hegseth.
“All the while, Congress has been incapable of the larger, deeper reforms that are ultimately necessary,” said Hegseth, who says there is hope for some legislation to pass this year. “If it doesn’t happen in this Congress, it means more vets waiting for a longer time at a dysfunctional VA that hasn’t changed.”
Why isn’t is happening?
“Mostly a combination of government unions, the AFGE, that want nothing to change and lobby very hard and are very powerful inside certain quarters in the halls of Congress. They’re blocking this. The VA bureaucracy is ferocious in trying to stifle anything that looks like change,” said Hegseth, who also says even some veterans groups are afraid to alter the status quo.
“There’s just powerful special interests like in any other area who want things not to change,” said Hegseth.