Alaska editorial: Take care of Alaska's vets

Posted: Thursday, February 04, 2010

Understaffing, lack of training and eight months without an on-site manager added to a poor performance by the Anchorage Veterans Administration Regional Office - a performance that left some vets without benefits they should have received or waiting far too long to receive them. Anchorage office supervisors did not dispute the findings of federal inspectors that the VA office failed to meet requirements in 13 of 14 areas covered in an inspection last year.

They ranged from security of vets' information to lack of tracking and follow-through to erroneous denial of benefits.

This is no way to treat our veterans.

Since 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have slammed the VA across the country. Clearly, the department was in no way prepared to deal with the needs of tens of thousands of troops mustering out of their country's service with a wide range of disabilities and injuries - both physical and psychological. Clearly, the nation wasn't prepared to keep the promises made to its veterans.

But the 2009 audit found the Anchorage office deficiencies exceeded the national shortcomings.

In the state with the highest per capita population of veterans in the nation, that's just not right.

Past performance is less important than current and future performance. The VA should make sure the Anchorage office:

• Has the troops to accomplish the mission. Patrick Kelly, the Anchorage manager who ended an eight-month stretch when the local office had no manager, told the inspectors the Anchorage staff is much smaller than other regional offices with similar workloads.

• That makes no sense. The result is that Alaska claims get sent to other offices, increasing delays and the chances that information will be misplaced. If the Anchorage claims load is similar to Boise's, then the Anchorage office should have a similar number of staffers - not 22 less.

• Provides adequate training. Staffers should have the skill to process and track claims swiftly and fairly. When they do, veterans will get the service they've earned.

That's the point here - make sure vets get all the benefits the law provides. Paper-pushing and keystrokes are mindless bureaucratic exercises if the people doing them can't deliver the goods.

• Processes Alaska claims in Alaska. Our office should take care of its own, provided it has the means.

Both of Alaska's U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, are keeping close track of this issue. Both have championed veterans' causes for years. Murkowski wants a thorough review of Anchorage office staffing. Begich has scheduled a field hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for Feb. 16 in Anchorage.

• Good on both counts. Let's do what it takes to take care of our Alaska veterans. They should be able to count on the home front.

• Make sure the Anchorage VA office has the means to keep our promises to Alaska veterans.

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