60 Minutes, CBS January 30, 2010

There is a sacred tradition in the military: leave no one behind on the battlefield. But many veterans are beginning to believe their country has left them behind at home, once they’re out of uniform and in need of help. That help is supposed to come from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the financial compensation it gives to veterans.

It was Abraham Lincoln who said the purpose of the VA was to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.” But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have pushed the VA further behind in that mission, and today there are a million veterans waiting for the VA to handle their disability claims.

That has led some to latch onto another motto making the rounds for how the VA operates: “Delay, Deny and Hope That I Die.”

“Why, then, is the claim form 23 pages long?” Pitts asked. “A 23-page application form I think is probably goes beyond just what is required. And one of the things that we’re looking at is to try to simplify the process,” Walcoff said.

Add to that the recession, which is forcing more veterans to turn to the VA for help. “All of those things have resulted in the Veterans Benefits Administration facing a backlog of one million claims,” Sullivan told Pitts.

“Veterans wait on average about six months to receive an initial answer on a disability claim. If a veteran disagrees with VA’s decision, the veteran waits another four years. That is a crisis,” Sullivan said.

Robinson told Pitts he was proud to serve and work for the VA, but that he’s not proud of the work the VA is doing. “We can do better,” he said.

Problems in the VA’s benefits branch have been the subject of GAO reports and congressional hearings for years. Starting in 2007, the VA received sizable increases in its budget and began hiring thousands of new employees. Yet the backlog of claims keeps growing.

“We keep trying’ to fix it, but it keeps getting’ out of hand. We throw more money at the problem, more people, we still have the problem,” Robinson said. “So, what is it then? If more people can’t fix the problem, more money can’t fix the problem, how do you fix it?” Pitts asked. “It’s a culture. It’s a leadership problem,” Robinson replied.

But last March, the VA’s inspector general discovered that the VA was making more mistakes than it reported: the internal investigation found that nearly one out of four files had errors. That’s 200,000 claims that “may be incorrect.” Attorney Douglas Rosinski has been handling veterans’ cases for ten years. He characterizes the VA’s disability benefit system as “broken.”

Claims are being denied unfairly, Rosinski says, because VA employees don’t have the time to read the files thoroughly. “When you get a denial, and it says, ‘We didn’t see,’ that’s right. I mean, they’re not lying, but if you don’t look, you don’t see. And even if you’re looking, it’s hard to find out what’s in there,” he told Pitts.

Michael Walcoff told Pitts there is no incentive to deny claims. “And there’s no pressure from anybody to deny a claim. And I can’t say it any simpler than that.”

David Pitts is an Air Force veteran and one of Rosinski’s clients; he served for 18 years. “Is your country serving you now?” Byron Pitts asked. “It’s not my country that’s doing this, it’s the VA. You know, there is no prouder American than I am,” David Pitts replied.