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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama, Shinseki Must Cut VA Wait Times — Soon

One of the mysteries of modern politics is the public’s high tolerance for the crappy treatment veterans have been getting when they get back home. Ask just about any American how he or she feels about veterans having to wait 600 days to get their claims addressed, as they do in a number of states, and she or he will tell you it’s an outrage. But somehow it’s never much of a factor on election day. But if something isn’t done to address this issue very soon, that could change on election day 2014 and 2016.
One reason it could change is that Vets now have an eloquent, energetic and committed advocate in Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who is now making the rounds to just about every talk show on television (see here for example). American Vets now have an advocate who knows how to work the media.
Republicans, of course, will be quick to blame the Democrats, since it has gotten worse in recent years, owing mostly to the backlog build-up and inadequate budgeting for veterans’ programs when they come home. VA head General Shinseki is talking about reducing the backlog by 2015, which does not sound acceptable, even though it may be a prudent answer, given his short-staffed resources. To paraphrase the Democratic strategist Bob Strauss, “that dog won’t hunt,” as the VA backlog becomes more of an issue, as now seems likely.
It’s pretty bad when today’s veterans describe their benefits system as “Delay, Deny, Wait till I die,” as was reported recently on the Rachel Maddow show. Joe Klein’s Time magazine article about the wait times was entitled “Shinseki Stonewall.” Klein argues that, at the very least, claims should be processed according to severity. “Why should an Army Ranger who suffered a 100% debilitating traumatic brain injury in Konar Province three years ago still be waiting for his disability check? Why should that Ranger have to wait behind a Vietnam veteran, who is filing a 3rd time claim to get his disability for post-traumatic stress raised from 50% to 60%?”
As a kid, I can remember getting medical care at local military hospitals, which everyone seemed to agree were the best. Our family shopped at the military commissary for groceries and saved about 20 percent over a comparable tab at the supermarket. There was veterans support for home loans, college education and other life expenses. We even used the swimming pool at one military installation. I never heard any complaints about wait times for anything. All of this because my father was a WWII vet, even though it was 12 or so years after the war ended. Today, most of these benefits have been shredded or reduced.
Of course, back then the income tax rates for the wealthy were significantly higher. There is no question in my mind that the tax cuts and austerity policies that accelerated during the Reagan era and after have hurt veterans badly. The political questions that remain include: Will President Obama be getting increasingly bad press for the wait times, or will he be able to speed things up very soon? Will he take the opportunity to explain to the public how Republican obstruction of the budget process has hurt veterans benefits and wait times?
These are tough questions. But better to address them now, than let them become a big issue that could hurt Dems in the next elections.

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