Last week's revelation that the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to fall behind in critical service to the nation's disabled combat soldiers is another shameful mark against an agency with a long reputation for failing to deliver on promises.
The time the VA takes to process disability and pension compensation claims skyrocketed last year by almost 40 percent to an astounding average delay of 262 days -- the worst record in the past two decades. This utter lack of efficiency is a national disgrace, especially in light of the fact that well over a half million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan sustained injuries.
The St. Petersburg VA Regional Office, which includes Manatee-Sarasota and all of Florida, ranks among the worst in the nation with the second largest backlog of disability claims awaiting processing -- almost 47,000 veterans whose lives remain on hold. The average processing time is longer, too, at 271 days. Curiously, this is occurring despite years-long VA efforts to reduce the processing time down to a 90-day average. With the agency moving in the wrong direction, the system can only be described as broken.
One of the chief reasons for the unforgiveable delays is the agency is operating with an antiquated paper system -- not even outdated computers much less a state-of-the-art electronic system. In this era of digital advances coming day after day, no large organization like the VA can afford to remain in the dark ages of complete dependency on paper.
The agency claims to be in the middle of a claims system overhaul while working toward eventually getting away from paper. The VA's history of one step forward, two steps back does not engender confidence that the backlog will be resolved anytime soon.
Last year, a McClatchy analysis of 2010 VA data revealed the numbers of Manatee-Sarasota veterans of the two wars returning home with terrible injuries: 148 with post-traumatic stress disorder; 34 with traumatic brain injuries; 117 with leg limitation cases, and 166 with back injuries, all among other medical conditions. We can only wonder how many are still waiting for claims service, their lives in limbo.
VA processing times for education and burial benefits as well as appeals also shot up. In one year, the average number of days to complete a burial claim soared from 113 to 178.
Some of this is understandable considering the large number of returning war veterans and the flood of new claims, but that does not excuse these abysmal -- and growing -- delays.
If VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's remark to Congress this year that significant improvements are in the offing for 2013 proves wrong, President Obama should take action.
Our soldiers serve our country with their sacrifices, and our country should serve our soldiers without delay.