Members of the armed forces serving abroad do a lot of waiting: they wait for orders, they wait for combat, and they wait for the moment that they can come home to see their families. In recent years, though, they face a kind of waiting that shouldn’t be part of the job descriptions after they return home from service: waiting to get access to their benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs to help support medical issues like PTSD.
The "backlog"—or number of veterans who are waiting longer than the VA’s goal of 125 days to access benefits—swelled to nearly 600,000 claims in May, although recent declines have put it at around 548,000. The average veteran currently waits 336 days to get support, nearly triple the VA’s goal.
A new data visualization tool and storytelling platform made in collaboration between the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the Knight Foundation sheds the spotlight on this bureaucratic disaster. After surveying members of its organization, the IAVA found that the average wait time to access benefits was 562 days among 1,791 respondents. Collecting those stories allowed IAVA and Knight to compare the experiences of different veterans in an interactive infographic, named "The Wait We Carry" that shows how wait times stacked up against the VA goal and differed according to state and combat operation.
"The real point of this visualization for us was to give veterans a voice to tell their own stories because the bureacracy is what consistently gets the most coverage," IAVA director of digital engagement Aminatou Sow explained over Google chat. "For the tool, we wanted it to show how we could make individual data points as important as the aggregate," by letting users quickly jump from one piece of data to a veteran’s story.
Clicking on a veteran’s data point pulls up a pop-up for each with a summary of his or her story that includes health problems (PTSD and a bad back are most common), a history of interactions with the VA, and the level of emotional and financial stress endured.
Those stories include John Goodman’s, a marine who earned a Purple Heart Medal after surviving a suicide blast in Iraq but has been waiting nearly a year to get the final word on his claim. "It’s sad to see so many veterans come back and apply for disability benefits and then wait so long to get a response. It can send a lot of veterans into a downward spiral," Goodman said in a statement for IAVA. "Veterans need to get the help they’ve earned. They shouldn’t be put on the back burner."
These individual stories lend urgency to an increasingly vocal advocacy movement that’s worked to keep media and political attention on the VA’s bureaucratic fail—which includes the organization getting called out for incompetence by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and a letter by the IAVA to President Obama signed by dozens of senators.
According to Sow, the backlog has to do with both "tech and regulatory issues." Earlier this month, USA Today reported that:
The mountain of claims continued to grow even after the VA launched an overhaul last year designed to automate and fast-track cases and improve the skills of those who handle them. The backlog of cases taking longer than 125 days tripled in size after Obama took office, and the number of cases… dragging on longer than a year mushroomed from 13,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December 2012.
The IAVA’s proposed solutions to Obama include digitizing the claim process and getting the VA to recognize the opinions of non-VA doctors, among other solutions.