Another week, another round of reassurances from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that the backlog of benefits claims — now at 900,000 pending claims and growing — will soon be a thing of the past. The sheer repetition of excuses would be comical if the matter weren’t so serious.
On Sunday, VA secretary Eric Shinseki told CNN’s State of the Union that, despite the soaring number of pending disability claims at the department, he’s “committed to ending the backlog in 2015 by replacing paper with electronic records.” With the backlog closing in on a record 1 million claims, that’s hard to believe.
This is well-traveled ground: Secretary Shinseki and other VA officials have repeatedly sought to spin away the backlog as simply a temporary aberration that they’ll soon have under control.
Meanwhile, news reports capture the bitter reality of how long veterans are waiting for their benefits — up to 20 months in some places, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. And in too many cases, veterans are dying before their claims are adjudicated.
Bloomberg reports on the Shinseki CNN interview:
Shinseki, 60, was responding to complaints that wounded troops are being required to wait for the help they need because of delays in reviewing their claims. Since Shinseki set a goal of resolving disability claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy in 2009, the backlog has grown and the error rate has increased.
“The president has been very clear, veterans are a top priority with him, and ending the backlog is foremost in his mind,” Shinseki said today. “In the past four years, if you look at our budgets for VA, a 40 percent increase to our budgets at a time when other departments have gone through belt-tightening. Someone once told me that show me your budget and I’ll show you what’s your value.”
As Shinseki’s remarks show, the Obama administration has talked a good game when it comes to honoring our veterans by improving performance at the VA. But the reality is far less rosy, as all the evidence shows. And with more veterans filing claims as the Afghanistan war winds down, the situation is more likely to worsen before it improves.
We’ve covered this ground before. In October 2012, I co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calling on the VA to embrace a “transformation” mindset to better serve veterans. Since we wrote that five months ago, the situation has only grown more dire.
Of course, before transformation can occur, there needs to be some recognition from VA that there’s a problem. Secretary Shinseki’s bland assurances on CNN on Sunday don’t suggest to me that the department is prepared to recognize the problem.