A half-century later, Truman’s words no doubt offer more insight than comfort to yet another commander-in-chief and the four-star army general he picked to be his Secretary of Veterans Affairs. In announcing his selection of Gen. Eric Shinseki on Pearl Harbor Day, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama basically gave the general just one overriding order — to fix what he had repeatedly called the “broken VA bureaucracy.”
To which the general replied with a commitment to “my fellow veterans: I will work each and every day to ensure we are serving you as well as you served us.”
Surely neither envisioned that some four years later their efforts would be heralded by an independent investigative article that was published online Monday beneath this headline: “VA’s ability to quickly provide benefits plummets under Obama.”
Aaron Glantz, a reporter with the independent Center for Investigative Reporting, obtained a number of internal VA documents that show that not only has the backlog of veterans’ unprocessed benefits claims soared — but that many veterans are waiting longer than the department has publicly acknowledged. While the VA reports its average wait time is 273 days, internal department numbers show that veterans filing their first claim wait two months longer than that. And veterans filing for the first time in big cities wait up to twice as long before their benefits claims are processed — New York City veterans experience delays of 642 days; Los Angeles veterans run 619 days.
Sometime this month, the VA documents show its backlogs will exceed 1 million veterans’ claims. And 97 percent of all veterans’ records are still on paper although the VA has spent $537 million in a four-year effort to convert all records to digital.
The VA confirms the accuracy of the documents Glantz obtained. But VA spokesman Josh Taylor notes that much of the increased backlog problem is the result of a large increase in the number of claims now being filed and the increased range of benefits the Obama administration has opened up for veterans. But what Obama and Shinseki’s VA have failed to act on is the reality of that enormous backlog that simply will not go away unless they change their bureaucracy’s approach and order it done.
For years, the cumbersome appeals process of benefits claims initially rejected by the VA adjudicators has produced horror stories that I have written about in columns and in my 2008 book (“Vets Under Siege”). And three-fourths of all appeals are found to be in error and are overturned or sent back to be adjudicated again. Extraordinarily wasteful.
The best — and probably only — solution at this point must be some variation of a plan devised in 2007 by Harvard professor Linda Bilmes. It calls for the VA to process benefits claims the same way the Internal Revenue Service processes taxpayers’ returns — closely examine just a random sample, but generally process them all. At least all of those that are relatively straightforward. Bilmes estimated that 88 percent of the claims could be processed and paid within 90 days, at a cost of just $500 million.
Gulf War veteran Paul Sullivan, a former senior VA project manager who became a leader in veterans causes and now works on those issues at the Washington area law firm of Bergmann and Moore, said in an interview, “The VA’s claim delays and error rate is a crisis and something must be done.”
Obama and Shinseki can reverse the backlog tide that has all but swamped the VA — but only by taking bold action. The Harvard professor’s unorthodox, unconventional-but-common-sense plan may now be the VA’s only way to achieve the goal Obama laid out for Shinseki in 2008: “Veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan ... deserve a smooth, error-free, no-fail, benefits-assured transition into our ranks as veterans.”
They clearly aren’t getting that now. Yet, after fighting our battles half a world away, that is precisely what they deserve from us.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.