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‘Epic reform’ needed to fix growing VA claims backlog, says former official

TAMPA, FL — The Department of Veterans Affairs is beset by problems and “epic reform” is needed to address them, according to a former official.

“The bigger problem is the lack of overall proper leadership, management, and development of the employees,” Darin Selnick, a retired Air Force captain and former special assistant to the secretary of veterans affairs, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“I’ve just never seen in an organization that has so much money and so many employees, such incompetence,” he said while at a stop in Tampa Bay, Florida on an east coast tour with the Concerned Veterans for America to promote important issues facing veterans, including the VA backlog.

In particular, these problems have led to poor performance and contributed to to the ever growing claims backlog that the department is facing, according to Selnick.

“It’s a bipartisan issue, it’s not based on one administration or one secretary,” he said. “You have to have a good executive core that leads and manages and trains. What you have is some good managers, but they’re thwarted by a vast number of leadership and management that really care about themselves first and the veterans second.”

To some extent the VA’s problems lay with political appointees, according to Selnick, as the career employees take cues and direction from them. However, poor incentives for career employees also hurt the agency.

“Career employees, you can’t fire them, all you can do is move them,” he said. “They don’t have the right incentives. They get bonuses based on things that have nothing to do with serving the public.”

Lax oversight has also put officials and employees under fire for wasting taxpayer dollars.

The VA came under fire recently for wastefully spending about $762,000 for a human resources conference in Orlando, Florida last year, with the Inspector General finding the VA’s oversight ineffective and even nonexistent in some situations. The inspector general also found that eleven VA employees managing the conference, improperly took gifts from contractors looking to do business or already in business with the VA.

Investigators found 335,000 encryption software of 400,000 licenses procured, still hadn’t been installed at a cost of $5.1 million.

The VA backlog of claims has also been piling up despite the VA now having 300,000 employees — making it the second largest agency in the federal government — and requested $140 billion for 2013.

“Last year, we produced another 1 million claims decisions and got 1.3 million claims in,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said. “So the backlog isn’t static. The backlog is a bigger number than we would like, but it is not the same number as three years ago.”

Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits at the VA, has said they have made significant progress in addressing the claims backlog, and said that moving to a digital claims system will provide “a lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog.”

“They are going forward and trying to institute some new systems, which I applaud them for, but you can’t say that three or four years down the road things will be better, you have to do something now,” Selnick said.

The claims backlog has been growing significantly from 400,000 in 2009 to nearly 900,000 according to the latest VA data. Nearly 600,000 claims — 66 percent — that have been pending for more than 125 days.

“It means 900,000 are waiting to get the benefits that they earned that they may desperately need,” Selnick sad. “They are not being compensated for the injuries that happened to them.”

“The biggest problem is fixing and reforming the VA so that it is an efficient machine that gets the job done,” Selnick added.

“I have talked to veterans who are literally on death row, who have waited two or three years for their claim,” he continued. “When I was at the VA, I saw reports that where claims were being processed at half a claim a day.”

Bloomberg reports that VA offices in San Diego, Oakland, and Los Angeles processed as many as 60 percent of disability claims incorrectly.

There’s an “endemic big problem that the VA is a big symptom of,” Selnick added. “The rest of the government has it as well. There has to be massive personnel reform because if you were in the corporate sector, you’d be folding up your tent and going out of business.”

“The only way to fix the VA is to hold the senior officials, both political and career, accountable,” Selnick said. he added that the White House Office of Management and Budget as well as the VA need to be part of the solution and held accountable.

“They have to know, every week, and every month, people are going to be asking what are the goals, the numbers, and the results. And if people don’t improve it, people need to be fired,” Selnick concluded.

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