On January 7, 2015 a gunman entered the El Paso, TX VA medical clinic and shot a doctor and himself. The news reports of the incident did not reveal a motive or the identities of the parties. It is a tragedy and the families of the victim and the shooter are no doubt devastated by this event.
As a veterans disability lawyer, I have lost count of the times that frustrated veterans have called the office to express their feeling that physical threats were the only thing that would motivate VA to take action on their claims. All such veterans were simply expressing frustration and I never got the sense that any would actually commit acts of violence toward the VA. However, given the widespread feeling among the veterans population that the VA is an obstructionist organization, I have no doubt that a tiny minority of individuals–probably suffering from severe PTSD or other psychiatric disability–may actually feel inclined to engage in violence. This is a tragedy and underscores the need for VA to be more proactive in providing treatment to veterans with mental disabilities. It also highlights the VA’s need to improve responsiveness and reduce the time it takes to resolve claims.
Veterans do understand that there are a lot of claims in the system. But what frustrates them is the uncertainty and the feeling that VA is free to drag out their VA appeals indefinitely. The mantra I have heard, as a veterans disability attorney, is that VA is just waiting for the veteran to give up or die. And then, when the public outcry is heard, the VA rushes to resolve claims, but unfortunately the fastest way to resolve a claim is just to deny it. Achieving speed at the expense of accuracy is not acceptable either.
What would help veterans, and their veterans benefits lawyers, is a strict federal regulation that requires VA to make a decision on a VA appeal by a certain date. This would eliminate the frustration of not knowing and would allow VA appeals lawyers to accurately predict when a decision would be received. The feeling of not knowing and the feeling that VA is free to unilaterally control how long an appeal takes can be beyond frustrating. It feeds into the universal sentiment among disabled veterans that VA is purposely trying to delay a claim in hopes that the veteran will die before it has to pay out on a claim. The VA needs to be held accountable in the same way that veterans are. For instance, if a veteran fails to file a Notice of Disagreement within one years of a rating decision, then he loses his right to appeal. Similarly, VA should be required to respond to a claim or appeal by a date certain or risk legal consequences. In a perfect world we could hope for a system where time deadlines apply to both sides. Is it asking too much of VA? As details of the El Paso shooting emerge, I strongly suspect that a disgruntled veteran, upset with the VA denial of his claim or appeal, was the responsible gunman. Incidents like these should serve to motivate VA to improve its processing of claims and appeals.