WASHINGTON — The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved the fiscal year 2014 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs (VA) and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, which included a 10-point “Checklist for Change” intended to fix the backlogged VA system.
As of June 10, Veterans Affairs reported 816,839 pending compensation claims for service-related disabilities as the agency continues to come under fire for sluggish processing that has left wounded warriors waiting for months on end for any claims resolution.
Sixty-six percent of current outstanding claims are considered backlogged — pending for more than 125 days.
Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) worked with MilCon/VA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) to develop the checklist that sinks $20 million more than the budget request into upgrading VA computer hardware, allocates an additional $10 million to pay overtime costs for claims processors “to increase production and efficiency,” and requires additional training, audits, and reports.
“When our veterans return from war, they shouldn’t have to face a quagmire of bureaucracy in getting their claims processed,” Mikulski said. “The solution to this problem must come right from the top. That’s why as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, I convened a meeting with leaders from DOD, VA, Social Security and the IRS.”
“Our committee insisted on a sense of urgency and a fire in the belly to get the job done,” she continued. “The result is the 10-point Checklist for Change to the end the backlog included in this bill. It’s progress. But more needs to be done.”
But representatives of veterans groups told a breakfast crowd near the Capitol on Thursday morning that the solution to the problem lies closer to the root of the backlogs: some offices perform better than others, and some stagnate at the bottom of the list.
The average wait time for claims processing at VA’s Baltimore Regional Office is 332 days. More than 16,000 claims, or 84 percent, are older than 125 days, the Appropriations Committee noted. The error rate of this office — 26.2 percent — soars over the national rate of 13.7 percent. Mikulski visited the office in February with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
American Legion Executive Director Peter Gaytan said while there’s “no one real solution to this complex problem,” it’s not going to be found sitting behind a desk in the Beltway.
Those interested in reform should visit the claims offices performing well in addition to the ones performing miserably and sit down, open files, and talk to staff to do the research needed to chart a course forward, Gaytan said on a panel discussion at the Concerned Veterans for America event.
“You have to be able to take the time to visit.. you’ve got to be able to understand the complexities,” he said.
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, stressed there’s “no silver bullet” that’s going to fix the mess — but the solution needs to include field hearings at regional VA offices.
“Let’s go to where we’re seeing the problems locally,” he said.
Stewart Hickey, executive director of AMVETS, noted that “rearranging the deck chairs will not make things operate more smoothly.”
The ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), told breakfast attendees that the backlog is an “embarrassment.”
“We’re doing everything we can, and consistently what we hear back is in 2015 it’s all gonna be fine,” he said in reference to the target date Shinseki has vowed will be the end of the backlog and the dawn of a 90 percent processing accuracy rate.
“I don’t know about you but the math just doesn’t work,” Burr continued. “This is not a shot at individuals or an agency; it’s a shot that people who process these claims don’t see the face behind the piece of paper.”
Burr, a cousin of the third vice president, said he’s stopped by veterans on the street who say “hey, we gotta fix this” and offer their suggestions.
But the VA isn’t off to a swift start on reform, deciding about 412,000 fewer claims over the past two years than what their goal projected, he said.
“When you’ve got people in this country whose life really depends on our ability to perform our job a goal cannot by aspirational,” Burr said.
“We cannot wait for the right moment. We have to solve the problem now.”
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) told the crowd that “beating up on the Department of Veterans Affairs” is not the objective, but getting “an honest dialogue with the department going with the legislative branch.”
“Once they get backlog cleared, if you haven’t changed the process, if the leadership processes aren’t changed, we’re going to have the backlog again,” Miller said.
The congressman stressed that the VA can’t chalk up the delays to a lack of funding, though, because in a “bipartisan fashion over last decade” Congress has “given everything the secretary has asked for.” The VA’s budget has increased by $25 billion since 2009.
And still, poor managers are either shuffled around instead of getting fired or, even worse, get big bonuses, Miller said in reference to a legionella outbreak through Pittsburgh’s VA hospitals over the past two years that sickened 22 veterans and killed at least five of them.
Michael Moreland, director of Veterans Integrated Service Network 4, received at least two bonuses totaling more than $70,000. Terry Wolf, director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, received a $12,924 bonus. The VA Office of the Inspector General attributed the outbreak to lax management oversight, some of which was observed before and during the period for which the bonuses were awarded.
“Mr. President, please get involved — it’s only going to get resolved if some takes a leadership role at the very top,” Miller said. “Mr. President, get involved. Secretary, please understand that we are not an enemy on the Hill.”
Concerned Veterans for America gathered more than 20,000 signatures on a petition to Obama asking that his White House “stop making excuses and start delivering results.”
“Following your election in 2008 and the appointment of Secretary Shinseki you vowed to fix the VA claims backlog,” states the petition cover letter. “Instead, it got exponentially worse increasing by 2,000% in just four years. This failure of leadership is unacceptable, especially for a wartime president.”
“Good intentions are not good enough. Results matter. Real men and women are counting on a VA bureaucracy that refuses to change. It’s time for new leadership that will reform a bloated bureaucracy, join the digital age, and deliver timely services for veterans.”
At the breakfast, Pete Hegseth, CEO of CVA, said “nobody doubts that we should live up to these promises and these obligations” to veterans.
“But what we haven’t seen is the ability to consistently deliver in a timely, efficient, and accurate manner those benefits that vets have earned,” Hegseth said. “It’s not enough just to have it; you’ve got to be able to deliver it.”