The claims backlog at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has grown over the last several years along with the number of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. In 2009, President Barack Obama vowed to fix the underperforming department. He appointed a former Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, to lead the charge.
At the time, most of us were optimistic that the backlog would be cut significantly and processing times would become manageable.
Four years later, the reviews are in — and the Obama administration’s efforts have fallen far short of expectations. With nearly 800,000 claims clogging the benefits pipeline, the VA today is less capable than ever (as a system) of providing for our veterans. It’s time for a real change.
When Secretary Shinseki took command, he promised to transform the VA into “a high-performing 21st-century organization that can better serve veterans.” His promise was sincere, but has proven hollow. Since 2009, the claims backlog at the VA has increased more than 2,000 percent. Veterans and their families wait months, and often years, for their benefits claims to be processed.
Imagine a young man who volunteered for the U.S. Army after 9/11, was sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, served honorably and then returned home after sustaining combat injuries, believing that the VA would be there to help him recover and live a normal life. He’d likely spend months waiting for the help he had earned through honorable service — the help he deserved, and the help he needed.
The claims backlog is a national disgrace, and we should demand better from the VA. The changes must start at the top. President Obama can start by relieving Secretary Shinseki from duty and installing a new leader who will bring real reform and results to the dysfunctional VA bureaucracy.
I have tremendous respect for those who have served and those who have led our military service members (my father died in the line of duty and I was a Navy wife for over 20 years). As an Army officer, General Shinseki served his country with honor and distinction. In fact, when he was appointed VA secretary, many of us were confident that the president had found someone who we could count on to turn the VA around.
Four years later, I still respect General Shinseki’s service, but it’s now clear that his current position is not a good match for his talents. In addition to the claims backlog, we’ve seen stories of rampant waste and abuse within the VA.
For example, the VA Office of the Inspector General filed a report last year detailing that the VA squandered millions of dollars on unnecessary training conferences at luxury resorts in Florida. It was appalling to learn that VA employees wasted taxpayer dollars and compromised their own ethics in exchange for cushy vacations and gifts from contractors.
Meanwhile, the average wait time for a veteran to receive benefits has grown to 268 days, and even that number grossly understates the reality. In some parts of the country, veterans are waiting over 600 days for their benefits claims to be processed. In many cases, veterans pass away (from natural causes, accident or suicide) while they wait … and wait … for their claims to be honored.
Secretary Shinseki pledged to make the VA a “people-centric, results-driven and forward-looking” federal agency, and to enable “21st-century benefits delivery and services.” It hasn’t happened; 97 percent of VA claims are still processed on paper. That’s simply unacceptable.
Over the past five years, Congress has increased the VA budget by more than $25 billion to enable the department to better serve America’s 22 million veterans, of which 2.3 million served in Iraq, Afghanistan or both.
Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) is dedicated to developing solutions to the VA benefits crisis. On June 20, CVA will host a special panel presentation in Washington, D.C., focusing on VA reform. Visit our website to learn more and view the live stream of the event.
Our veterans accomplished their missions and many paid a horrific price. Neither the president nor Secretary Shinseki has accomplished theirs. It’s past time for reform at the VA.
Janice E. Arnold-Jones served in the New Mexico House of Representatives for eight years and is currently serving on the Albuquerque City Council. She’s a Navy wife, the daughter of an Air Force Pilot and a member of Concerned Veterans for America.