Wednesday, August 14, 2013

ANALYSIS: Has the Obama Administration Been Good or Bad for Veterans?


President Obama speaking to Disabled American Veterans
During his speech Saturday before the Disabled American Veterans' national convention in Orlando, Fla, President Obama addressed new proposals to give veterans greater access to education and job opportunities, and said the backlog of veteran disability claims, which has plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for years, has "begun to shrink." But is this in fact true? And what is the real story regarding Obama's record on America's veterans? Has he been good or bad for our former warriors? 

It's not a simple answer. There have been some historic advances, as well as some profound failures. While the backlog has been reduced by nearly 20 percent since March, Obama ignored some key numbers in his speech. The number of disability claims and delays actually skyrocketed in the last three years, partly because so many troops have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and because of an aging population of Vietnam War vets and overdue rule changes that made more veterans eligible. 

Approximately 780,000 claims are now pending for new and re-opened claims, and there are 250,000 additional claims on appeal. In other words, more than 1 million of our disabled veterans are still not getting the compensation they have earned serving our country.

Obama has clearly worked hard trying to fix this broken disability claims process and to assist veterans in other areas. But has he done enough? No. Is he minimizing the ongoing problems at VA? Yes, especially for Gulf War veterans, who this administration has virtually forsaken. Just weeks ago, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who of course is an Obama appointee, gutted the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illness, an independent board mandated by Congress in 1998. 

Shinseki, who'd previously shown unwavering support for the committee, reversed course for no legitimate reason, firing or removing the committee's chair and half the panel. This shocked and angered many veteran advocates who speak out for the 250,000 Gulf War veterans who've still not yet been treated for Gulf War Illness.

Despite these very serious problems, things have gotten better for veterans overall since Obama took office. It's not easy fixing such a deeply entrenched bureaucracy as VA, especially when two wars are concluding and politicians are too busy fighting each other to pass many laws. But by almost any measure, the situation for veterans and their families is demonstrably better now than it was under the previous administration. 

There has been real progress on many fronts, including conditions at VA facilities, and the fast-tracking of coverage of a number of health issues resulting from Vietnam War troop exposure to Agent Orange, which the Bush administration ignored. 

And this administration is light years ahead of the previous one in terms of support for veterans with post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and other mental health-related issues, which Bush largely neglected. And then of course there were the conditions we saw at Walter Reed, which I reported for Newsweek in 2007. 


It is disingenuous and transparently political for Bush-era pols to lambast Obama for his treatment of veterans. The VA during the Bush years was a disaster, as we reported six years ago.

Anthony Principi, for example, who was one of the three VA secretaries under President Bush, recently said the backlog is largely the result of Obama administration policy decisions and laws that have burdened the system. In a speech at a forum co-hosted by Concerned Veterans for America and The Weekly Standard magazine, Principi called for the restoration of the "integrity" of the VA claims system.

This is nonsense. Principi's VA was mired in controversy. And he has no room to speak on the subject of integrity. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2008 that the California company headed by Principi overcharged VA by some $6 million under a long-term contract to conduct physical evaluations on veterans applying for disability benefits. 

Obama also deserves credit for implementing the overdue automation of troops claims, which will revolutionize the claims process. My sources inside VA tell me that this badly needed computerization of the claims process has faced resistance by 19th century VA bureaucrats. 

One source who works with VA every day tells me, "There is sadly but clearly a population of career non-professional VA employees who are worried that the transition to computerized claims and the elimination of paper will mean fewer jobs. They may be right, but if that's the price to pay for timely and accurate claims processing, then too bad. Shinseki has stated publicly that the antiquated paper claims system costs the taxpayers $1 billion a year, and that does not quantify the pain and suffering of those waiting for adjudication of their claims. Many of the suicides are due to slow processing or denials." 

Robert Walsh, an attorney who has represented thousands of veterans with disability claims with VA, says that "more veterans that I represent obtained 100 percent VA compensation benefits and health care in the first four years of the Obama administration than in eight years of the Bush administration. That is all I know about it. Results. Shinseki and Obama have been 100 percent better for vets and the country vis a vis military families and vets. Shinseki took over a train wreck. He has the trains running again."

But the track is certainly not at 100 percent speed. Paul Sullivan, a highly respected veterans advocate and managing director of public affairs at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that exclusively handles veteran disability cases, recently told MSNBC that at some VA offices, the wait for a disability claim to be processed is "unbelievably long. We’ve had clients here that have died waiting ten-plus years for a VA decision."

So, clearly, while things have improved under Obama's watch, much more needs to be done. While he gets an F for his treatment of Gulf War veterans, overall I'd give him a C-. Or, perhaps more accurately, an incomplete.

30 comments:

  1. Jamie:

    A very important and critical post until you made it political by hammering Bush. The question is this: Is enough being done? The answer clearly is no. However, a more fundamental question is this. How can we avoid wounded veterans in the first place? That's the operative question. Why are we still shipping dead and broken Americans home from Afghanistan long after any hope of anything approaching victory can possibly be achieved? We are wasting Americans in Afghanistan today for no reason other than propping up an interlocking criminal enterprise which is what the Karzai government has become. Finally, some 70% of our wounded and dead from Afghanistan have occurred on Obama's watch, not Bush's. So, regardless of your political leanings, the objective now is to stop creating more broken veterans that need help from a broken VA. Let's just bring them home. Now.

    John Cook

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    1. I agree with that part, John. But I can't sit quietly when people from the previous administration, which was an absolute disaster for veterans, blast Obama. People who "served" veterans during that administration should just button their lip. You;re right about Obama and Afghanistan. Absolutely. But let's also not forget that Bush got us into an entirely unnecessary war in Iraq with bogus intelligence and flat-out lies.

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    2. As we went from one president to another, we were also going from one war to another. Bush's Iraqi casualty list compared to Obama's Afghanistan list....look it up. :)

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    3. exactly what is your point? both wars were already underway when obama was elected.

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  2. The Obama administration has not impressed me any more than any of the past administrations on Veterans Issues. Personally all of them beat their gums and do not one thing but point fingers. Lets see more legislation that puts our veterans first and less dog and pony speeches about what all they will do for veterans. Pointing the finger at other administrations is not doing whats right for veterans. If they truly care get the elected officals weather it is the POTUS or Congress to step up. and stop gum beating and smiling for the camera. Ronald Brown
    Disabled Veteran

    82d Airborne Division

    1/504 PIR Strike Hold

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Ronald. And thank for your service to our country! I cite many examples here of how things have improved, as well as where obama has fallen way short.

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    2. This B.S. has been goin on sense before the Nam war. My Dad a WW2 Vet can no longer go to the V.A. hospital cuz of the co-pay. I owe the V.A. bunch of money on co-pay and haven't paid them a penny. Why? because they promised me that all my medical needs would be taken care of for as long as I live. THEY LIED..AGAIN! Now look what this Gov. is doing to our new Warriors who are coming home. All this Gov does is lie to the American people and what pisses me off is the American people let it get away wit it. We give our all and what happens? This Gov. shits on us! Yes I am bitter and I will probably die bitter. I tell my grand kids not to join the Armed Forces to fight for this Gov. BUT to join the Armed Forces to fight for the people of this Country. The Gov. can suck rotten eggs!

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  3. Has he done enough?? Let's see, things are also looking at being cut for benefits starting in 2014. So, you are right in giving him an incomplete, he isn't done yet......

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  4. So this is just a political post to blame previous administration. Has not one thing to do with helping veterans. Just about pointing fingers. Disappointed

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    1. maybe you should try reading it again.

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    2. Hard to get around the true agenda of said story. I read your response to John. This is a political attack. Nothing more.

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    3. Not a political attack. Just stating facts. I point fingers at Obama, as well. There have been many demonstrable improvements for veterans under Obama, that is a fact. There are many things that still need fixing, things that obama has failed to do. that, too, is fact. the VA, walter reed, and conditions overall for veterans under the previous administration was largely a disaster. that is also a fact.

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  5. Jamie's essay is correct. Veterans care about accurate and fast claims as well as prompt and quality care. Many things are improving, and many things still must be improved at VA.

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  6. Jamie, as someone who has been at the core of Gulf War veterans' advocacy for many years, this analytical opinion/editorial piece is very well done. Your analysis of the Administration's abject failures of Gulf War veterans were right on target, summarizing the national news coverage (including your own) on the issues that have arisen in the last two years -- and extremely troubling.

    Well said, and as always, well written.

    Let's hope this Administration starts doing more than simply justifying their (failed) actions and inactions for Gulf War in particular, and for other veterans on the several important issues you raise in this sweeping, on-time, on-target analysis.

    -Anthony

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    1. Thanks Anthony. I always welcome and appreciate your insight. I tried to be fair here.

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  7. All I have dealt with is the Obama Administration, and I am extremely disappointed. My husband filed in June 2010, we handed them every medical record he had. It took two years to receive the denial, we filed a NOD, almost a year had gone by without any progress at all on the claim when my husband took his own life. I expected another denial, and then another 3-5 years in the appeal process. This has all been under Obama's watch. There would be less backlog if the VA spent less time trying to figure out how to deny legitimate claims. I would not be surprised if they do not have a pile to place claims for veterans they know if they wait long enough will die, or take their own life. He suffered from the Gulf War Illness, and depression. So they deny him, continue to make him wait until he loses his job, and then when he commits suicide, close his claim faster than I have ever seen the VA do anything. I have now filed a substitution of claimant to continue my husband's claim and was told it would take 75 days just to let me know if that form had been received. How ridiculous. I can tell I have a long fight ahead of me already, and that nothing has improved.

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  8. This just came from veteran Chris Harding:

    "Jamie,

    I am new to 1991 Gulf War veterans advocacy, but I am a 100% Total and Permanent disabled 1991 Gulf War veteran.

    I have been reading about the Veterans Affairs, and, although the Veterans Affairs has saved my life, I am saddened by what I have read. It appears to me that the Veterans Affairs has a history of cover-ups no matter which Secretary or US President serves. As an example, I supply the following quotes from US House Committee on Veterans' Affairs in 1999 and 2013:

    Year 1999 Quote: "My concerns about the VA culture of tolerating favoritism, cronyism, harassment, and retaliation are a matter of record. The VA has a history of turning a blind eye towards mismanagement and misconduct by senior officials while punishing anyone who dares to speak up. It is a prime example of the good old boy network."[Hon.Terry Everett, Chairman of the Subcommittee]

    Year 1999 Quote: "Mr. Chairman, in concluding, I want to again apologize on behalf of the department for the failure to respond in a timely manner to your letter of September 8, 1998. This delay, in my opinion, was inexcusable and it will not happen again."[Mr. Brickhouse, Veterans Affairs to Chairman US House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations]

    Year 2013 Quote: "VA is currently sitting on nearly 100 separate requests for information made by the committee, some dating back more than a year. The leisurely pace with which VA is returning requests – and in some cases not returning them – is a major impediment to the basic oversight responsibilities of the committee."[US House Committee on Veterans' Affairs]

    As we know, Congress has a tendency to move very slowly. Sadly, I have read that it often takes legislative action before veterans are truly helped.

    Sadly, besides you, most of the major media, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc, do not seem interested in veterans true issues. Instead, they concentrate on the current "leaders" and "politicians" instead of the institutional corruption that exists among the long term employees."

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  9. Back the boat back up to the dock, Gilligan. When has any administration EVER given us a fair shake in a timely manner. This problem goes back two centuries since the inception of the citizen warrior concept following the War of Independence(War of 1812), sir. I began my odyssey in 1989 and lost at the BVA in 92. DAV neglected to mention the COVA.Three years from start to finish. Nothing has changed other than the modern-day tenor of the denials ("We regret to inform you..."). Unless and until the hierarchy are replaced with true "boots on the ground" adjudicators instead of Geico-trained ribbon clerks, nothing but the speed of the denials will increase.

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    1. very well said. but i still stand by my contention that there have been marked improvements that certainly amount to more than "nothing."

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  10. Let me ask you this Jamie you keep stating improvements. I do not mean any disrespect to ya because I no your a writer. I get that. But don't ya think the best way to get a correct answer on this is to ask the disabled veteran how good things are under this administration. Ask the ones who are losing there homes waiting for approvals on the claims. Ask the gulf war veterans who have not been approved for their claims. Yea it started under former administrations. But what has this one done for them? They can claim what he has done for veterans all they want but ask the every day disabled veteran if he has seen said improvements. That is what will be the truth. Not what any administration says they have done. It should be does the disabled veteran feel the accomplishment they are bragging about. Just my two cents on this issue.


    Ronald Brown
    Disabled Veteran
    82d Airborne Division

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  11. I thought your article made some good points, particularly about the forsaking of Gulf War vets. I did find the whole inclusion of all the negative comments about President Bush and his administration to be gratuitous and irrelevant to the storyline of Obama's own performance in office. You also made some unsupported claims like "by almost any measure, the situation for veterans and their families is demonstrably better now than it was under the previous administration." but then you didn't provide any "measures" other than your opinion or other subjective comments, which really aren't "measures."

    I had many more specific comments, but found out after I tried to post, it was about twice as many characters as allowed, so I just deleted it all. Suffice it to say I didn't think you supported your negative comments about Bush at all, other than with some single source anecdotes, like the lawyer who said he's gotten twice as many 100% disabled approvals in Obama's four years than in all 8 of Bush's two terms. With no numbers, that could be 2 and 1, 4 and 2. Maybe he just had twice as many good candidates for 100% schedular disability (those aren't easy to find, I wouldn't think). Anyhow, it hardly proves a Bush vs Obama VA measurement. And Anthony Prinicpi, an (alleged) thief and liar and purloiner of veterans funding, using the phrase "Bush-era pols" as if there were a herd of them out doing this, was the only thing "disingenuous and transparently political" in your report.

    Respectfully,

    Dr. Dave Hatfield
    SGM, US Army (Retired)
    GWI Sufferer

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    1. Thanks Dave for that thoughtful response. Respectfully, I disagree that I offered unsupported claims. I believe it is fair to compare the current admin with the previous one as a way to quantify whether things have gotten better or worse. As you have evidently forgotten, the VA during the Bush years - specifically under James Nicholson - was a disaster. And have you also forgotten the despicable conditions at Walter Reed, where Bush went, twice, to apologize?

      VA’s clinics and hospitals suffered from hundreds of problems, including worn carpet, damaged floor tiles, leaking roofs and cockroach infestations.

      http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2007/03/04/forgotten-heroes.html

      While at the VA, Nicholson defended a budget measure that sought major cuts in staffing for VA health care, cut funding for nursing home care, and blocked no fewer than four legislative measures aimed at streamlining the claims backlog. Current VA secretary Shinseki is far more dedicated to ending this backlog.

      Nicholson left VSA in disgrace after an electronic file stolen from the home of a VA analyst in May 2006 revealed Social Security numbers and other personal information for more than 2 million U.S. military personnel. Nicholson told Congress that the VA would offer free ID theft protection for one year to those affected by the theft, but once the data was recovered, the VA rescinded the offer.

      I could go on, and on, and on. Suffice to say, there are thankfully much better leaders at V now then under Bush. There is, frankly, no comparison. But as I have said many times, Obama, too, has failed veterans on many fronts - especially Gulf War vets.

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    2. Jamie, and I'm certainly not trying to be disrespectful or start a fight here. I guess your response really proved my point, though. The title of the article was "Has the Obama Administration been Good or Bad for Veterans?" not "Has the Obama Administration Done a Better Job for Veterans than that Horrible Bush Administration Did?" I'm just looking for a little honesty in advertising for your headline. I don't like to get suckered into a debate about one thing when I thought I was going to read an analysis about something else.

      You didn't make any of those supporting points in your original article, just your statements I mentioned in my original comment. The VA certainly had its share of problems under the Bush administration. But nice carpets and floor tiles haven't fixed many of the underlying problems still faced by veterans at many of the VAMCs. The lost computer files pale in comparison to the problems at the VBA, the problems in the ORD and the OPH with all the politics, infighting, self-centered control of billions of dollars of research money going to insiders' own personal pet projects instead of where it's really needed, or how Secretary Shinseki, who I truly believed was going to fix this place, and his new Chief of Staff have now defied the will of Congress and caused grave damage to the hopes of hundreds of thousands of sick and dying Gulf War veterans, myself among them, by gutting the charter and body of the RAC GWVI.

      So a debate about the relative efficacy of the two administrations and their support of the VA would be a challenging one, without a doubt. I'm sure they both have strengths and weaknesses. My only real comment was I didn't think the article focused on the original premise of the title without throwing in this understory of the comparison of the two administrations, which I felt was gratuitous and not very even-handed in terms of facts.

      Seriously, though, it was only my opinion and thought upon reading the article, and I wasn't trying to sharpshoot you or start a battle or anything. I know what it takes to put yourself out there in writing and I respect that, and hope this can be seen as a dialogue, and not an argument, if that's acceptable to you.

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  12. I have to agree with Asknod in large part because most administrations have attempted to erode veterans benefits in some manner going back to the Founding Fathers fighting with vets over service payments.

    Bush did a horrible job for veterans. VA was understaffed. Our military was under-equipped. Disabilities shot up threw the roof and that administration was well aware but did not fund. Making matters worse, Bush DID select cronies of government contractors to run VA.

    For over a decade, VA has been run by former Academy boys. Prinicipi and Peake both worked for QTC and that company now performs the majority of disability compensation examinations. Principi worked for both QTC and Lockheed Martin.

    Guess who just bought QTC? Lockheed. Now, Lockheed owns all the data gleaned from VA on these exams. I guess it will help them make better bombs?

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  13. http://www.mainjustice.com/2013/07/19/veterans-in-data-breach-suit-suffered-no-harm-government-argues/ Guess this happened under Bush as well. There are plenty of others as well.

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  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  15. This shocked and angered many veteran advocates who speak out for the 250,000 Gulf War veterans who've still not yet been treated for Gulf War Illness bolatangkas.asia

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  17. The VA is involved in much more than only health care, but the performance of the other departments is buried beneath the mountain of complaints re the failures in health care. It occurs to me that the civilian health care system is equally unable to satisfy the public. It appears that the medical community as a whole is not doing a satisfactory job in the eyes of the public, including veterans. What can be done? Most hospitals are operated on a profit-making basis, and in health care that means denying care to people who can't pay, unless some public entity or insurance company assumes responsibility. For veterans, many of whom are not well off, the VA's Health Administration is the only viable venue for health care, especially for problems related to the years of service. Yet many are being stalled when they apply for medical benefits. Is it because the VA is unwilling to admit it lacks the facilities to handle the load? Is congress unwilling to raise taxes to fund a larger budget? Or are the various medical specialties within the VA unable to agree on diagnoses, especially on controversial subjects such as Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome? According to the VA, about a quarter of the U.S. population is potentially eligible for VA benefits and services because they are veterans, family members or survivors of veterans. To cope with these numbers the VA (as of 2008) employs 278,565 persons (the only larger Federal workforce is the Department of Defense), of which 247,113 are in the Veterans Health Administration. The rest are divided between Veterans Benefits, National Cemetary System.Veterans Canteen Service and the Revolving Supply Fund, while almost 10,000 are scattered through various staff and facilities offices. One would think that there are enough people in the VA, but the organization is at fault. The White House alone cannot alter the situation -- what is required is a concerted effort by the Congress and the Administration, which obviously is impossible in today's partisan warfare. As usual, the veterans who need help the most have become the victims of heedless politicians more concerned with party agendas.

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