MEMO TO: President Barack Obama and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki
RE: A Veterans Affairs Department's backlog battle you haven't begun to fight
Four years after you both famously declared war on the VA's unconscionable backlog of military veterans waiting for benefits they earned fighting our wars, there is one backlog battle you haven't begun to fight.
It's a battle against the VA's enemy within. The VA's own first-deciders are unintentionally undermining the VA's backlog war.
Mistakes and flawed rulings by the VA's often-inexperienced claims adjudicators are adding to the VA's huge backlog they were supposed to be reducing. Consider this shocking statistic: The latest annual report of the U.S. Court of Appeals of Veterans Claims shows that in the 2012 fiscal year, the appeals court upheld only a quarter of the VA's denials.
The independent court found at least some problems with most of the denials of veterans' claims by the VA's initial adjudicators, or by the VA's Board of Appeals. (The board is the first stop for veterans who want to appeal denials handed down by the VA's claims adjudicator.)
The independent Court of Appeals of Veterans Claims remanded back into the VA Department's system some 60 percent of the cases that veterans had appealed. And those cases became, once again, a part of the VA's infamous growing claims backlog. Sometimes, the cases went back to the VA's Board of Veterans Appeals; other cases went back to the VA's original adjudicator. Then the whole process began anew.
Here's what this means for veterans: After being forced to wait months and even years, they must begin another long-wait process.
Here's what it means for the VA claims-case backlog: It is being increased, not decreased, by often-inexperienced VA adjudicators who too often fail to get it right the first time.
By the end of March, one million veterans will be waiting for claims to be processed, according to VA statistics. Right now, everyone seems to be focused on the fact that the VA hasn't finished computerizing its records. But even when the VA catches up with the computer age, expected in 2015, you both will find that your backlog is being undermined by bureaucratic snafus.
There is nothing wrong with the process in theory. When veterans' claims are rejected, they can file an appeal. The appeal works its way through the system to the VA's Board of Veterans Appeals. Sometimes the board sends the case back to the adjudicator for new consideration; sometimes the board agrees with the initial denial.
Then the veteran can take the case outside the VA, to the independent Court of Appeals of Veterans Claims. That court concluded that a mere 24 percent of appeals were rightly denied by VA adjudicators and the board.
Clearly, the VA system would be much more efficient if its first adjudicators got it right the first time. Or if at least the board of appeals got it right the first time, after the adjudicators didn't.
Mr. President and Gen. Shinseki, why do you still tolerate a VA claims-adjudication system that works so poorly?
After all, those problems are nothing new. I highlighted a number of them in my 2008 book, Vets Under Siege. I reported and reviewed dozens of outrageous decisions in which VA adjudicators denied or delayed claims that veterans had clearly earned. Why does it happen?
I came up with two explanations that remain valid and unresolved today:
• The development of an adversarial VA mindset. While the VA has thousands of excellent workers, a mindset has spread among some in the VA. Some who decide veterans' claims see themselves as adversaries, certainly not advocates. They become preoccupied with detecting and blocking veterans' false claims, not helping veterans get all the benefits they earned by serving America.
• The rise of unwise VA incentives. Bonuses have been awarded to VA personnel for saving the government money, not primarily for helping veterans get their deserved benefits.
That's why I have long urged a departmental name change that is far more than just cosmetic.
Call it the Department of Veterans Advocacy, Mr. President. It is a way to fix the VA's collective mindset and affix the correct sense of mission for all who work there.
As an added benefit, one retired four-star Army general will finally have a title that reflects his career-long sense of self: Secretary of Veterans Advocacy Shinseki.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)