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Topics: Veterans Affairs

EXCLUSIVE: VA exec calls meeting of 'big brain' folks to seek backlog fixes

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

A "big brain" group of government executives, union representatives and private sector experts is needed to come up with a plan to quickly end the bureaucratic logjam that forces veterans to wait months to have their disability benefits claims processed, a top Department of Veterans Affairs official says in a high-priority email obtained by The Washington Examiner.

Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits at the VA, said in the March 30 plea to more than 20 senior executives at VA that she needs ideas fast. Pressure is mounting on the agency to end the delays in processing claims, which take an average of about 10 months and in some areas more than a year.

"I am seeking your assistance to bring together in a very rapid fashion a group of brilliant and experienced thinkers from inside and outside VA to put everything on the table for ideas we can do to eliminate the backlog in short order," Hickey wrote. "I need to do this very quickly so I am reaching out to you because I believe you and Jonah can help me access some of the 'big brain' folks in short order. I would like to do this meeting as soonest (sic) as possible (in the next week or two)."

"Jonah" apparently refers to Jonah Czerwinski, director of the VA Center for Innovation.

The kind of "big idea" people Hickey has in mind include representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union which represents many VA employees, insurance industry leaders, people working at think tanks and "anyone else you can think to add that will bring fresh creativity to this position."

One individual singled out by Hickey is Craig Newmark, founder of the Craigslist website. Newmark has written extensively praising VA for its efforts to transition to a computer-based system to process disability claims.

Hickey also suggested including critics of VA in the meeting, including Paul Sullivan, founder of Veterans for Common Sense and director of veterans outreach at the law firm Bergmann & Moore.

A VA spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Hickey's email is not clear about why she wants to assemble great minds to attack the backlog, or why there is now a sense of urgency. She and her boss, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, have repeatedly told Congress that the agency has a multi-pronged plan that will ensure every disability claim is processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. Shinseki repeated that vow during a House Committee on Veterans Affairs meeting Thursday morning.

But there is growing skepticism in Congress because VA's numbers keep getting worse. About 70 percent of the disability claims pending at VA have lingered beyond the 125-day deadline. It takes 286 days for the agency to process an average claim. In some areas, waits are more than a year.

A year ago it took an average of 246 days to rate a claim, about 66 percent of which were stuck in the system longer than 125 days.

Some veterans groups have called on President Obama to appoint a special commission to study ways to eliminate the backlog. Among them is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which last month "stormed" the Capitol to meet with members of Congress and the administration. The group delivered a petition to the White House calling for a presidential commission. It has been signed by about 45,000 people, including two dozen members of Congress.

"Anybody who has studied this problem understands that it's beyond VA alone," said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive and founder of IAVA, who has not seen the email and would not comment on it specifically. "Shinseki can't do this alone. VA can't do this alone. We need the president to make this happen. Something like a presidential commission would bring the brightest minds against this problem."

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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