When servicemembers leave the military, they work with the Department of Veterans Administration (VA) to establish their eligibility for VA benefits. These benefits include disability pension and healthcare. Unfortunately, the VA is notorious for the delay in processing claims. An article in today's New York Times (page A22 of print copy) details the shocking length of delays, and the incredible volume of pending cases.
While I'd like to spend a little time being disappointed that the VA has let things get this bad, it is more productive to think of ways to ensure that the VA's problems don't mess with your life. Servicemembers who have earned VA benefits and expect to use them immediately may find themselves in a bad situation when the inevitable holdup occurs.
What can you do to prepare?
Understand The SystemThe VA system of claims and evaluation is slow and confusing. Take the time and energy to understand the process as much as possible. We have some amazing resources here at Military.com, including blog posts from Terry Howell and Benjamin Krause. The more you know, the more you can prevent delays and know how to push for faster action.
Have SavingsI know, I know. I talk about emergency funds all the time. Well guess what? Leaving the military may be the single most important time to have an emergency fund. It is an unpredictable time, and the most surprising things can happen. Last military paychecks can be delayed up to 60 days. First retirement checks don't arrive as soon as you retire. Jobs fall through. It's a challenging time. The absolutely best way to make it less challenging is to have a large chunk of money set aside specifically to get you through the transition.
Collect and Clean Up Your RecordsThe VA claims process is based on paperwork, and lots of it. Gather every single piece of paper that you have, and organize them. I know the military makes it hard to get your medical records, but there are ways to make it happen. Make multiple copies of everything. Send a set to your parents, your child or your best friend.
VA benefits can be very generous, but they make you work for it. You can expect to wait months, even years, for your claims to be decided, and you can also expect that you may have to appeal the decisions. It can be overwhelming, and even disastrous, if you don't know this is going to happen. Get out there and know your benefits and how they work. It will save you a lot of stress along the way.