In Their Own Words: Veterans on the VA System

In recent months, we’ve written a lot about the deteriorating situation at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), where the number of veteran awaiting processing of their disability benefits claims remains unacceptably high. In total, more than 778,000 veterans are awaiting claims.

The numbers alone are shocking: The nationwide average wait is 332 days—almost a year. More than 500,000 veterans have waited longer than 125 days for their claim to be processed; almost 225,000 have waited a year or longer.

On Monday, I was pointing out the VA’s shortfall in service to our veterans on Twitter, using our #MillionVetBacklog hashtag. That prompted a response from the folks at the VA’s @VAVetBenefits account, who posted their claim that the backlog is shrinking. I won’t recount all the details of our exchange—you can see some of the back and forth here.

But mere numbers simply don’t go far enough to tell the story—after all, each of these claims represents a veteran (along with his or her family and dependents) who is anxiously awaiting action from a bureaucracy that is sluggish, unresponsive and ineffectual. The VA wants us to believe they have everything in hand, and that things are getting better. But most veterans I deal with report a far different experience.

So how do we capture a better sense of what veterans think about their VA experience? We asked them.

Recently, Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) conducted a survey of 545 people around the nation, asking about wait times, the quality of the experience and how they would improve the VA’s performance.

The response was illuminating. On a scale of 1 (very poor) to 5 (excellent), our respondents ranked their experience with the VA at an average 2.29—roughly “poor to average.”

We also asked veterans to describe their experience in one word. What was the most common word they used? “Frustrating.” To give you a visual grasp of the words veterans selected, check out the word cloud we created from their responses at the top of the post.

Note that some veterans did, in fact, report positive experiences—you’ll see that some chose “good,” “great” and “satisfactory” to describe their VA experiences. I’m glad to hear it. If I were a VA executive, I wouldn’t rest until I could figure out what we had done to earn those plaudits, and then figure out how we can replicate those successes for a larger population of vets.

Maybe the VA’s time would be better spent trying to figure out how to improve its customer service to veterans rather than arguing with their critics on Twitter—especially when the department’s performance gives them so little to boast about.

Because those positive responses are vastly outnumbered by negative experiences. “Poor,” “disgusting,” “slow,” “disappointing” and “nightmare” were all-too-common responses. And those responses portray the reality for far too many veterans in their dealings with the VA benefits system.

Overall, the survey paints a picture of a VA that is staggeringly dysfunctional and failing in its mission of service to veterans. We can—and must—do better.

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