VA in Crisis

As VA Backlog Grows, ‘Baffled’ Veteran Allies Begin To Turn On President

As the benefits system for veterans has bogged down on Obama’s watch, in spite of his promises to fix it, advocates who had been allies are running out of patience with the president, reports Jamie Reno.

America’s 23 million veterans are facing an unprecedented crisis as the backlog of disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has grown to nearly 1 million—more than double what it was when President Obama took office.

The situation has reached a tipping point. Newspaper editorial boards and magazines call it a “national disgrace” and insist VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is calling for the resignation of Allison Hickey, the VA’s head of benefits.

Given the breadth of the crisis, this widespread outrage isn’t surprising. But perhaps what is surprising is that for the first time, several prominent veteran advocates who’ve been staunch supporters of Obama are now joining the chorus of critics who say the president has badly mishandled the VA.

“I supported President Obama in both elections, but what is happening right now at VA is inexcusable,” says Thomas Bandzul, a well-known advocate for veterans who is legislative counsel for Veterans and Military Families for Progress and past associate counsel for Veterans for Common Sense.

Bandzul, who in 2007 worked closely with then-Senator Obama on the Lane Evans Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act, said he is “baffled” by why the problems at the agency just keep getting worse and why Obama isn’t doing more to fix it.

“I know Shinseki on a personal level,” he says. “I know Allison Hickey on a personal level. They’re two of the greatest people in the world. But it’s time the president takes full responsibility for this failure, and takes action. This is happening on his watch.”

Bandzul and other veteran advocates who support Obama who were interviewed for this story are quick to point out that some things are better for veterans than they were before he took office. For example, according to a December 2012 report from Housing and Urban Development, veteran homelessness in the U.S. has dropped 7 percent since January 2011.

Also, more veterans are working. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report released on Friday showed that unemployment for post-9/11 veterans dropped to 9.2 percent in March, compared to more than ten percent a year ago. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative, too, has been effective in calling attention to various issues important to veterans and their families.

But the backlog disaster has many advocates seething—even those who’ve been outspoken allies of the president. Waiting for disability benefits can be devastating for veterans and their families. Nearly 20,000 veterans died last year waiting to hear about their claims, and the suicide rate among veterans rose to an alarming 22 per day in 2010, according to a recent VA report.

Obama, who first promised to end the backlog during his 2008 presidential campaign, has substantially increased the VA budget, hired more staff, and implemented new computer systems. But as the Center for Investigative Reporting recently noted, these efforts have collectively failed to reduce the number of outstanding veteran disability claims.

The Veterans Management Benefits System (VMBS), the electronic system the agency is phasing in at its regional offices in an effort to fix the broken claims system, has itself been plagued with problems that have instead lengthened delays.

Obama appointee Shinseki, a Vietnam veteran and retired four-star general, and Hickey, a retired brigadier general, both have said in recent weeks that VA can still keep its promise to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2015 and complete initial veteran claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy.

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But Jack Lyon, an Obama supporter and veteran advocate who founded Veterans Village of San Diego, a nationally recognized nonprofit that offers a wide variety of services for veterans, says that goal is now unattainable.

“Veterans are dying waiting for their claims, others are waiting 600 days or even longer, and it’s only going to get worse as more waves of troops leave active duty,” says Lyon. “This is outrageous. The president needs to do more. Whatever it takes. He needs to make better use of his bully pulpit by really explaining this crisis to the American people. What about all those promises he made to end the backlog and end homelessness? Where is the leadership?”

Tess Banko, an Obama supporter and veteran advocate who was a lance corporal in the Marines, thinks an executive order is the best way to fix the backlog. Banko, a Mission Continues Fellow at the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, was injured on the rifle range during her Marine training, suffered a herniated disk in her back that impinged a nerve, and lost control of her right leg.

Last summer, she filed a disability claim and the VA returned a disability rating that was lower than she felt she deserves. Now awaiting a decision on her appeal, Banko says filing the claim has opened her eyes to what veterans across the nation are really dealing with.

“I’ve been a supporter of the president, so is it tough for me to criticize him? Yes,” she says. “But could he do more for veterans, especially when they file a disability claim? Yes.”

Banko believes an Executive Order would be “politically dicey, but widely supported. The situation for veterans is dire. I personally think the VA should first approve the backlog claims and then audit the claims for accuracy. The IRS does it, why not the VA?”

Bandzul , who agrees that an executive order should be Obama’s next move, notes that Obama issued one last year to improve mental health conditions and suicide prevention efforts for veterans.

“He did it for veterans and suicide, why can’t he do it to fix the disability backlog?” Bandzul asks. “In VA land, you should be able to walk in the door with your information from a competent medical authority, whether it’s mental health issue or a physical illness, verify you are disabled, and have plausible evidence that it is service connected. And then you should be paid within 30 days, end of discussion. Obama could order this. He’s done other precedent-setting things, like the Wall Street bailout. He helped out those billionaires and millionaires, why won’t he bail out our veterans?”

The idea of adopting the IRS model at VA—paying out claims and giving veterans the benefit of the doubt that these claims are not fraudulent—is not a new one. Four years ago, the House Appropriations Committee said VA could model its claims system on more user-friendly electronic tax filing systems. But nothing came of it.

The White House seems aware of the concerns, with the budget proposal it's releasing this week reportedly including a $2.5 billion infusion for the VA. But advocates, including ones who are usually lothe to criticize the administration, are skeptical that simply throwing money at the problem will work. It hasn't so far, they say.

Bob Walsh, an Obama supporter, veteran advocate and attorney who represents veterans with disability cases, has been fighting for 20 years with VA in Detroit, one of the worst offices in the country in terms of waiting times and errors on claims. A recent Office of the Inspector General review of the Detroit office said staff did not accurately process 31 of 60 disability claims reviewed.

Walsh says it’s time for Obama and Shinseki to “get rid of the career bureaucrats and deadwood at VA who are resistant to change. It’s time the president started worrying about veterans as much as he worries about guns or hurricanes in New Jersey.”

Walsh suggests there are people at VA who have a “vested interest” in the system not working who are not interested in fixing the broken backlog. The VA has repeatedly denied that any such culture exists within VA.

But, says Walsh, “There are workers at VA who don’t want to lose their jobs, and obstructionists who’ve always worked at VA who think veterans are deadbeats. There are good people at VA, but that culture does still exist. I see it all the time. Obama faces an uphill battle, but to really improve things at VA, that’s the kind of thing the president has to address. Or things will never change.”