Picture a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who, returning home to Georgia after being wounded in Afghanistan, sits down at the kitchen table to fill out a benefits claim to send to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). He’s not expecting a lot of money, but it will help his family get by while he makes the transition to the civilian workforce now that he’s completed his service to his country.
How long do you think that Marine veteran will have to wait to get an answer on his claims benefit? Two weeks? Thirty days? Sixty days? Ninety?
Not even close. If he lives in the Atlanta area, he will wait an average of 337 days—about 11 months—while the VA decides his claim. And in fact, it may be much longer. Atlanta veterans filing a first claim may wait as long as 473 days, or well over one year.
That’s according to a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), which has been tireless in chronicling the ways in which our government is failing the men and women who have served in uniform. CIR has provided heroic in-depth coverage of the bureaucratic dysfunction at the VA, where hundreds of thousands of veterans are in limbo waiting for their pending claims to be processed.
Enough is enough. It’s time for President Obama to take charge of the deteriorating situation at the VA by removing the current leadership, specifically VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, and installing new executive leadership to lead an organizational turnaround at the department.
In spite of the president’s repeated vows to fix the backlog, the situation has grown worse over the last four years. When Obama took office in 2009, there were 12,5000 veterans who had waited more than a year for their claims to be resolved. Today, that number has grown to nearly 245,000—a 2,000 percent increase in four years.
In some major metropolitan areas, wait times for claims can average 600 days or longer. What’s even more disturbing is 53 veterans a day are dying before their claims are resolved.
The problem, we are told, is new veterans entering the system, including new claims from Vietnam-era veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange. But even with an increase in veterans seeking assistance, the uptick in claims was as predictable as the tide—as combat operations wound down in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials knew they would see a surge in claims.
The VA should have been prepared for the number in claims to rise. Instead, Shinseki has provided repeated excuses for the VA’s failure to perform, along with unrealistic promises for how quickly the matter could be turned around. Most recently, Shinseki has vowed that the current backlog will be eliminated by 2015, a target that virtually no one believes is possible, given that more veterans’ claims are being added to the pile every day.
To be sure, the VA can’t take all the blame. Some delays stem from the fact that once an individual separates from active duty, the Department of Defense has failed to deliver records to the VA in a timely manner. In some cases, it has taken 175 days for the Pentagon to transfer the records to the VA.
It’s not just veterans who are growing frustrated—even the best VA employees are overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the mountain of paperwork, and their morale is suffering. That reflects a failure of basic management and a failure of leadership.
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 http://concernedveteransforamerica.org/advancereform/ to learn more and view the live stream of the event.
Secretary Shinseki assumed his leadership post promising to fix the mess at the VA. Many of us were hopeful he would succeed; after all, he was a distinguished U.S. Army general with a reputation for integrity and a record of honorable service. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough.
The situation at the VA can be repaired, but it won’t be easy. The first step must be for the president to relieve Secretary Shinseki of his post, sending a message of change to the entire VA, and then to appoint a new leader skilled in corporate transformation to lead a departmental turnaround. Don’t delay, Mr. President—our veterans have waited too long already.