Division over backlog, VA leadership

With the backlog of compensation claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs having ballooned in recent years, one would expect major veterans' service organizations to be among VA's harshest critics.

If so, they would join a rising chorus. Recently network news programs have turned cameras and commentary on the mountain of 598,000 overdue claim decisions, suggesting bureaucratic neglect of returning ill and injured vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Time magazine columnist Joe Klein even asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

One veteran association, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), says the administration isn't doing near enough to end the backlog with its average wait, from filing to decision, now at 273 days. Some veterans in the largest cities reportedly are waiting more than 600 days.

But most veteran service organizations aren't joining that chorus, for perhaps two major reasons.

One, they believe they understand better than the loudest critics why the backlog has grown so. Some contributing factors these veterans' groups actually fought for.

Two, criticism of Shinseki and his team rings hollow to many veteran groups given the administration's support over the past four years for robust funding of VA, unprecedented cooperation with vet advocates, and the depth of its commitment to reform a 20th Century paper-driven claims process.

That's why groups including Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion came to Shinseki's defense after Klein's call to resign. That's why Joseph Violante, legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that VA is moving "down the right path" with many of its reform plans even while "processing over a million claims annually, which in my mind is something phenomenal."

Violante described VA leadership as the most open he has seen in almost 30 years working veterans issues in Washington D.C. He had particular praise for Allison A. Hickey, under secretary for benefits.

At the same hearing, Bart Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, praised Shinseki. The NVLSP successfully has sued VA, initially more than 20 years ago, to compensate Vietnam veterans for diseases presumed caused by wartime exposure to herbicides including Agent Orange.

Stichman said Shinseki showed courage when, facing a rising claims backlog in 2009, he added three new diseases to VA's list of diseases compensable for Vietnam veterans due to Agent Orange.

This required VA to re-adjudicate 150,000 claims previously denied and to process more than 100,000 fresh claims from Vietnam veterans, including for most anyone with heart disease who ever served in Vietnam.

The Veterans Benefits Administration put more than 2,300 experienced claims staff — 37 percent of its workforce — on the effort for 2 1/2 years, paying out more than $4.5 billion in retroactive benefits.

"While the decision was absolutely the right thing to do," Hickey said, "it did have an impact on our ability to keep up with new claims coming in and on aging claims already in the system."

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:

milupdate@aol.com

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