MARTIN SCHRAM: VA's growing backlog needs attention now

Scripps Howard News Service Published:

"Poor Ike," Harry Truman is said to have famously mused as he sat at his Oval Office desk and thought about Dwight Eisenhower, the legendary five-star general who was about to succeed him as president. "It won't be a bit like the army. He'll sit here and he'll say, 'Do this!' 'Do that!' And nothing will happen."

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."

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.

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. Contact him at martin.schram@gmail.com.)

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  • Ian, Veterans should not accept being ignored and they are not being ignored. In a poll by the American Legion, President Obama has done more for veterans that any president in the past 20 years. My reference to Romney is a reflection on his party. Cut entitlements-period. Romney's remarks led voters to believe that veterans and seniors would have been part of those cuts. Above, Mr. Schram mentions the horror stories experienced by veterans in the appeal process and he wrote about these in his 2008 book. The Obama administration took over in 2009 so this is not a problem brought on by the Obama administration. It is a complex problem that has grown over a long period of time and there obviously is no easy fix or it would have been done. I am not sure how my post led you to believe that I do not care about veterans. My father was a war veteran and proud to have served. My family gives all of our usable items to AMVETS rather than Goodwill. When I find a man or woman in fatigues behind me in line to get coffee, I will pay the clerk for their coffee as well. They never know who bought it, just that someone appreciates what they do. So I will call your personal remark about me an uneducated one and leave it at that.

  • Stanback: So veterans should just accept being ignored because you say Romney would have ignored them as well? I can tell that you care a lot about our veterans.

  • Our veterans were part of Mr. Romney's 47% "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement." It appears Mr. Romney had a plan for the veterans that the voters did not want.

  • The Obama administration worsening conditions for veterans? Isn't that what the voter's wanted? Stymie the flow of benefits to the deserving veteran in favor streamlining the flow of dole to the undeserving.