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Martin Schram: Help reform-minded secretary fix the VA


At last, America’s military veterans seem to have a secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs who gets it.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the former chairman of Procter & Gamble who came to the VA just 3 1/2 months ago, has made clear in his words and early deeds that there must be sweeping systemic changes at the VA. And also what he calls a change in the “culture” that permeates the VA.

The new secretary celebrated Veterans Day last week by issuing a sweeping reorganization plan designed to finally make the system work. He has also fired 35 VA employees for concealing VA hospital backlogs and begun procedures to remove 1,000 more.

But while he and his new team have visited more than 40 VA sites, McDonald still may not grasp the full malevolent extent to which the cultural VA mindset has fostered what veterans feel is a VA policy of “delay and deny” toward claims filed by veterans.

It was back in 2008 that I first chronicled the VA’s litany of failures and suggested a number of solutions in my book “Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles.” Now a new VA secretary seems determined to make sweeping reforms and effect a cultural sea change.

Our job is just to make sure McDonald gets the benefit of what many people already know.

▪  Why veterans sometimes feel “VA” stands for “Veterans’ Adversaries”: In 2005, National Guardsman Garrett Anderson, of Champaign, Ill., was driving a truck near Baghdad when an improvised explosive device detonated. He lost his right arm and broke his jaw, and his body was riddled with shrapnel. The VA claim adjudicator granted him benefits for his lost arm and broken jaw, but declined to award shrapnel injury benefits with these mind-boggling words: “Shrapnel wounds all over body not service connected.” There are scores (maybe hundreds or even thousands) of similar, hauntingly infuriating examples.

▪  Bureaucratic blinders: A World War II vet, who had retired to Florida after a long career with the U.S. Postal Service, died in January 2011. He was getting VA and Postal Service pensions. His wife, needing basic living income, promptly sent the VA and Postal Service requests for her spousal share of the pensions and copies of his death certificate. Days later, the latter responded and she received her first monthly pension share in February. But nothing from the VA, except more paperwork. Half a year later, after I asked a top VA official about it, she finally got her first pension check (with retroactive back payments).

It’s time to revive an idea I’ve long proposed: Help end the VA cultural mindset that resulted in veterans viewing the VA as Veterans’ Adversaries by changing the official department name.

McDonald would then have a new title: secretary of the Department of Veterans Advocacy.

Martin Schram is a columnist for Tribune Content Agency.