Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

American military members hurt in service to their country should not have to wait a lifetime for the benefits they deserve. But that’s a reality of the disability process at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which hasn’t made paying benefits a priority and needs a hard kick from Congress to clean up its act.

The veterans benefits system is a century-old behemoth that has not kept pace with the times or the demands on its resources. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, the system pays out more than $78 billion each year to 5 million beneficiaries. But there also are more than 470,000 veterans who have been denied benefits and appealed — and their cases are grinding through the claims process at a glacial pace, with some cases taking years if not decades to resolve.

It would be one thing if the backlog was caused by complex cases or fraud. But according to the department, the main cause of the delays is a design flaw that fed appeals with simple errors into a legal system designed to handle more complicated cases. Thousands of cases corrupted by no more than typographical errors have jammed up the flow, causing the processing of cases to slow, and for wait times to grow longer. The New York Times reported scores of cases have waited 25 years for an answer; and another 22 have been waiting more than three decades.

A new law Congress passed this summer seeks to expedite the process by assigning claims to one of three tracks depending on the complexity of an appeal. The department intends to hire hundreds of additional staff in the coming months to speed up the appeals process. But lawyers involved say the reforms miss a fundamental problem: Cases are so plagued with a vast number of errors that they end up getting bounced around the system for years as officials work to clean up the details. With so many flaws on the front end, advocates fear the reforms will fall short and that Congress will move on.

In a report published this year, the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, noted the VA was taking steps to speed up the decisionmaking process. But it also noted that the caseload for the Board of Veterans Appeals — the final arbiter of cases — had grown about 20 percent from 2014 to 2015, and that without stronger action, average delays could increase by 50 percent or more, to beyond eight years, by 2026.

The VA said it is working across a broad front to improve its staffing and response times. But these are systemic problems going back years and ingrained in the VA culture. A Gainesville man who hurt his back 34 years ago while serving in the Coast Guard got something of a reprieve after Sen. Bill Nelson intervened in his case. But it shouldn’t fall to veterans or to individual lawmakers to hound the agency into doing its job. The system needs to function in a fair, timely manner for everybody.

The Trump administration and Congress need to follow through on these reforms, give the VA the resources it needs and hold the agency accountable. Men and women in uniform injured in service to their country should not have to wait years to get the benefits they have earned.

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Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

To his credit, Gov. Rick Scott says he is considering requests to order an independent investigation of how Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s office screens applications for concealed weapon permits. It’s a reasonable request, and the governor h...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Maggy Hurchalla joked this spring that all she could offer a billionaire who won a $4.4 million judgment against her after she exercised her free speech rights were "two kayaks and an aging Toyota.’’ The billionaire didn’t laugh. This week, Martin Co...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/18/18
Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

In one of the most surreal news conferences of our time, President Donald Trump actually stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday and called the federal investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election "a disaster for our coun...
Published: 07/16/18
Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

The St. Petersburg City Council made the appropriate but difficult decision to reject a contract with renowned artist Janet Echelman for one of her aerial sculptures. It would be wonderful for the city to have one of her signature works, but Spa Beac...
Published: 07/13/18

‘Everybody needed to know what happened’

The brutal murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago youth, in Mississippi nearly 63 years ago went unpunished, but not forgotten. A decision by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to allow an open casket at Emmett’s Chicago funeral represented an act of def...
Published: 07/13/18
Editorial: Personal bias taints Florida’s clemency system

Editorial: Personal bias taints Florida’s clemency system

A recent exchange between the governor and Cabinet and a felon seeking to have his civil rights restored underscores the arbitrary unfairness of Florida’s clemency system. A long waiting period, a ridiculous backlog of cases and elected officials who...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/13/18

Trump should work with Congress on immigration

Donald Trump’s resounding victory in the 2016 presidential election came at least in part because the New York businessman grasped the disconnect between how millions of Americans and the political establishments of both parties felt about immigratio...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/13/18
Editorial: Trump’s trade war hurts American consumers

Editorial: Trump’s trade war hurts American consumers

Voters who looked to Donald Trump to make America great might want to look at their wallets. The president escalated his global trade war this week, threatening new tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports — everything from seafood, beef and ...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/12/18
Editorial: Rays stadium cost should be fairly shared

Editorial: Rays stadium cost should be fairly shared

The imaginative Ybor City ballpark proposed by the Tampa Bay Rays fits nicely into the 21st century vision of a sophisticated city and would secure major league baseball’s future for the entire region. It also carries an eye-catching cost that will h...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/12/18
Editorial: Supreme Court pick qualified, but confirmation process should be vigorous

Editorial: Supreme Court pick qualified, but confirmation process should be vigorous

For the second time in less than 18 months, President Donald Trump has nominated a well-qualified, conservative federal appeals court judge to the U.S. Supreme Court. That does not mean Judge Brett Kavanaugh should get an easy pass through Senate con...
Published: 07/10/18
Updated: 07/11/18