• VA Sec: Waitlist Problems Are Because Of Vietnam-Era Vets

    A surge in Vietnam-era veterans claiming benefits is to blame for waitlist troubles and recent revelations that 300,000 veterans died while waiting for health care, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Wednesday.

    “The problems of the VA in 2014 were not because of Afghanistan and Iraq,” McDonald said Wednesday at a military and family forum. “We have Vietnam-era veterans qualifying for issues that we didn’t even know how to define during the Vietnam War.”

    Advances in medical care means that servicemembers wounded in combat are much more likely to survive than in past decades, which entails more burdens on the medical care system, Military.com reports.

    And this burden comes primarily from Vietnam veterans. Disability claims are on the rise and will reach 1.44 million by 2017, which constitutes roughly a 50 percent increase from 2009. It’s not clear whether the VA is able to handle additions to the medical care and benefits backlog, and the recent inspector general report indicating that 300,000 veterans died while waiting for care only makes the situation more dire. (RELATED: VA IG Confirms Worst Fears: 300,000 Vets Really Did Die While Waiting For Healthcare)

    Last year, confirmed allegations of employees manipulating appointment waitlists at the Phoenix VA medical center kicked off department-wide scrutiny and prompted the resignation of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki. Since then, many more insiders have come forward to reveal poor practices, as well as retaliation against whistleblowers. Officials have responded by saying that they simply don’t have a large enough budget to patch all the holes.

    At the same speech, McDonald also mentioned that he has lobbied Congress for permission to close 10 million square feet of unused and unneeded facility space across the United States, which would net about $25 million to ease some budget constraints at the department. The total number of unused buildings amounts to 336. According to McDonald, with the vacant buildings out of the way, the department could hire 200 registered nurses, instead of maintaining these properties. In the past year alone, the VA has added 3,500 nurses and 1,100 physicians to meet escalating demand.

    But McDonald explained that part of the reason for resistance is that members of Congress don’t like closing buildings in their home districts— even if the buildings aren’t seeing any use.

    Without extra funds, McDonald is worried that the infrastructure won’t exist to treat Iraq and Afghanistan veterans 30-40 years from now, especially if Congress doesn’t honor the VA’s fiscal 2016 request of $168 billion. But both the Senate and House have shot well under that amount at $163.7 and $163.2 billion, respectively. The two figures are set to be reconciled in conference later this month.

    Follow Jonah Bennett on Twitter

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