Hundreds of thousands of veterans had endured a similar ordeal since the mid-1990s as they waited years to obtain disability and pension benefits from the VA. The delays led to former President Barack Obama directing the agency to streamline the benefits process and hire 2,500 new personnel to assess compensation claims. The changes reduced the case backlog from 611,000 in 2013 to under 100,000 two years later.It is true and something that keeps getting missed in most of the recent reporting. Veterans have been dealing with all of this for decades. Congress, with jurisdiction over the VA since 1946, has never once apologized to veterans for not doing their jobs.
But that progress now appears in jeopardy. President Donald Trump has imposed a federal hiring freeze that prevents the VA’s benefits agency from filling open positions, creating concern among veterans and advocates in South Texas that the backlog could swell again.
“A few years ago, getting your benefits was like a lottery system,” said Villanueva, who lives in San Antonio and supports his wife and three children with his $3,000 monthly disability payment. “You had no idea when you would hear back from the VA.”
The VA’s acting secretary at the time, Robert Snyder, moved quickly to exempt jobs that the agency “deems necessary for public safety.” The action shields 36,000 out of 48,000 open positions in the VA’s national workforce of 360,000, including physicians, nurses, behavioral health providers and other front-line medical staff.Easy on this part. The VA already had a backlog before troops sent to Afghanistan and the into Iraq created even more disabled veterans. Congress didn't seem to think mobilizing the VA to prepare them should be on the to-do-list.
The Veterans Benefits Administration had almost 500 job vacancies in its 56 regional offices as of March 1. None qualify for exempt status, and while VA Secretary David Shulkin has talked of protecting more positions, advocates fear the agency will remain shorthanded.
Felix Rodriguez, the assistant veterans service officer for Hidalgo County in Weslaco, considers that drop the strongest argument to exempt the agency’s administrative positions.And yes, that part also keeps getting missed.
“We’re talking about quality of life for veterans,” he said. “For some of them, their VA benefits are their only source of income. They can’t afford to wait. Without that money, they start slipping down.”
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