Thursday, November 29, 2012


They say fighting never solves anything. But the clash between Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could disprove that adage. Simmering tensions between lawmakers and senior VA officials, which boiled over today on The Hill, could result in some very positive changes for America's veterans. In a rare display of bipartisan unity, 95 evidently frustrated Senators today ordered the VA to produce a detailed plan to fix the shameful backlog of 900,000 veteran disability claims within 60 days, Army Times reports.  

"This is vital news for veterans and their families who have suffered from VA delays and denials for too long," says Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and esteemed veterans advocate who works for Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that focuses exclusively on veteran compensation claims.

"We hope VA Secretary (Eric) Shinseki listens carefully to Congress and produces the urgently needed plan within two months," Sullivan says. "Veterans and advocates are pleased to learn Congress is providing aggressive and thorough oversight of the Veterans Benefits Administration's (VBA) beleaguered claim processing, where 900,000 veterans wait nearly nine months for an initial answer about a disability claim."

Congress has in recent weeks been demanding information from VA officials not only on the backlog, but also the error crisis at the VBA (which is part of the VA), the VA's suicide epidemic and shortage of mental healthcare providers, and the VA's evidently reckless spending, including the the estimated $9 million the agency spent on two Orlando gatherings in 2011.

The disability claim delay and error crisis, the suicide epidemic, and the shortage of mental healthcare providers have all tragically been ongoing issues for the VA. What is relatively new is the department's alleged spending sprees. 

According to Stars & Stripes, the VA may have spent as much as $87 million on training conferences last year. 

But in characteristically evasive fashion, VA officials have told members on the House Veterans Affairs Committee that they aren't sure how much money was spent. House Committee members insist the VA simply isn't providing enough oversight on training costs.

“There’s a culture at VA that doesn’t put veterans first,” Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, told Stars & Stripes. “We wouldn’t need all these policies and procedures if you had the right culture there.”

But now that culture is being formally challenged, and the VA has no choice but to respond. It should be noted that the Obama administration has greatly improved things at the VA these past four years and the President seems genuinely committed to making sure veterans are supported. 

The backlog, however, is a monster that only continues to grow as more warriors return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. And the VA has seemed all too content to let it grow and to keep information from the public.

House Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has been particularly outspoken about VA's lack of openness. During a committee hearing this week, Miller, who angrily noted that VA leaders failed to answer 75 questions raised by members of Congress, vented his wrath toward Deputy VA Secretary Scott Gould.

“The truce is over. It lasted less than 24 hours," said Miller, according to NBC News. "Expect much more oversight from this committee. Expect more questions from this committee because they’re coming - in great volumes.”

Gould reportedly referred to the committee’s questioning as “a slap at the employees who work at VA every day.”

But Miller fired back, “No, no, no, no. Don’t you ever accuse a Democrat or a Republican on this committee of slapping any of the hardworking 300,000 VA employees. Rest assured, it’s the leadership that we’re concerned with.”

I actually share the Congressman's frustration. As a journalist, I've sometimes found it difficult getting information out of the VA's press office. Which is not to say that there aren't many, many highly dedicated people who work for the VA. Because there most certainly are.

It's the leaders that seem to want to hold on to this tired bureaucracy, this culture of silence. But it's a greased rope. The Senate's demand today that the VA produce a plan to fix the backlog is refreshing and long overdue, and hopefully it will snowball into all kinds of positive changes. 

And perhaps the most encouraging part of all this? It was a truly bipartisan effort, as USA Today reports tonight.  

Veterans should be heartened by all the across-the-aisle discussions and developments taking place in Congress right now about the VA. Because they will very likely result not only in fewer delays for disability benefits, but also in fewer errors on claims, fewer spending scandals, and the hiring of more mental healthcare providers. 

In other words... yes, sometimes a little fight apparently can solve things.


  1. Awesome!! Thanks for great reporting. It's about time they get serious about correcting this.

  2. Vietnam vet awaiting final decision on my PTSD appeal. I have been in the system for over 4 1/2 years. Have been awaiting degree of disability fairing for thirty plus days now!

    1. Wow, that is the kind of thing I hear far too often. I wish you the best. I hope this action by the Senate helps you get that decision made!

  3. Its about time! I've been told twice they are doing an inquiry into why my rating has been approved and why its past due...simple problem solved would be to hire mostly veterans to do the jobs most of these lazy civilians don't give a f**k about because to them its bs we get all this money, if veterans were doing the claims all 900,000 of them would be don't by the 1st of the year!

  4. The major problem at VA is that management has no idea of what it takes to process a claim and, valuable knowledge resouces, that is the most knowledgable and experienced employees are marginalized and ignored by those managers. Those who are able are leaving in great numbers. Far too much time is wasted on useless training. VA is now implementing a new program to process claims called Veterans Benefits Management System or VBMS. People who work at the VA have told me that VBMS is in practice short for Very Big MesS because it does not work and will only add to the backlog.

    Bottom line is that there are a great number of highly complex claims and not enough experienced employees with the intelligence, wisdom,time and integrity to accurately work these claims. I do not see any solution to the problems under the current regime.

  5. Not so sure this is gonna help anything. They will just deny the majority to push them through and say they have been processed. I will believe it when I see it. Been waiting far too long for a decision on my husbands PTSD claim. It took us almost 10 years on his back disability claim. It will take a lot more than a simple timeline to fix what is broken.

  6. For the Viet Nam vets with serious heart related issues, I think the VA is dragging it out and hoping they die before their claims get processed.

    The VA just started allowing heart disease claims related to Agent Orange
    about 2 years ago. If the vet dies before the claim is processed no one gets the money.