Sometimes, a federal agency becomes so dysfunctional that nothing short of a top-to-bottom housecleaning of leadership and management practices will restore its ability to perform the services for which it is intended. Reporting in recent months by The Washington Examiner Watchdog team's Mark Flatten and the Center for Investigative Reporting's Aaron Glantz has made it clear that such a sad state of affairs exists at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. What makes this situation especially distressing is that it is America's heroes -- men and women who risked their lives to serve in this nation's military -- who suffer as a result.
Things were bad in 2009 when President Obama appointed retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki secretary of veterans affairs. Shinseki is still there, and despite being given billions of dollars more to spend and hundreds of additional staffers, the department is in much worse shape today. As Flatten has reported, the average claim processing time was 161 days in 2009; today it is nearly 300 days. But dismissing Shinseki is only the first step of many steps that must be taken with all possible dispatch in order to restore VA to health.
The most obvious symptom of VA's terminal dysfunction is the continually expanding backlog of unfinished applications for everything from disability benefits and widows' pensions to funeral benefits. There are more than 600,000 unfinished claims for disability benefits and pensions alone. On Wednesday, Glantz reported that "the bureaucratic logjam follows veterans to the grave. The ranks of widows, widowers, children and parents waiting for a nominal burial benefit -- between $600 and $2,000 -- nearly tripled during Obama's first term: from 23,000 to 65,000. The average wait time for a funeral subsidy had reached 207 days in December, from two months four years before."
Flatten began covering the VA crisis last year, and since then has filed dozens of stories detailing the incompetence, corruption and mismanagement that wracks the department. Just last week, he exposed a new VA plan to reduce the claims backlogs as nothing more than a bureaucratic bait-and-switch. Here's how it would work: Veterans with the oldest claims would receive a "provisional" disability rating, then the department would close their old case and open a fresh one based on the new rating. Ronald Robinson, president of a VA American Federation of Government Employees union local in South Carolina, told Flatten "these provisional decisions only serve one purpose and that is to cook the VA books and cheat the veteran; this is smoke and mirror claims-processing."
A bipartisan group of 26 congressmen last week wrote to Obama demanding action. Concerned Veterans for America also spoke up, calling for Shinseki's sacking in a new TV spot. But simply relieving the guy on top isn't the answer. It's time for Obama and Congress to get serious about fixing VA. A good place to start would be asking companies like American Express and VISA how they process millions of financial, insurance and credit transactions for customers around the world every day, with no backlogs.