Watchdog: Skeptical House panel quizzes VA head on budget

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Results instead of rosy projections are needed to prove that pumping more money into the Department of Veterans Affairs will break the growing backlog of disability claims, Secretary Eric Shinseki was told during a congressional hearing where he pitched his $152.7 billion budget request Thursday.

Despite bipartisan skepticism from members of the House Committee on Veterans affairs, Shinseki stuck to his oft-repeated claim that the agency is on track to ensure all disability claims are processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.

But Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., noted as the hearing opened that the VA budget documents from last year predicted that by now no more than 40 percent of disability claims would linger past that 125-day deadline.

The actual figure today is about 70 percent, four percentage points worse than it was a year ago. More than a million veterans have claims and appeals pending at the agency. Average wait times for an initial disability rating are almost 10 months, with veterans in many regional offices waiting more than a year.

"I'm concerned that we're not really seeing the results for the money Congress has provided to VA over the last years," Miller said. "VA has missed its own performance goal every single year and I think most committee members here are really very tired of the excuses that we keep hearing."

Why won't Shinseki talk?
The Washington Examiner tried to question Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, after he testified in front of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Thursday.

Shinseki refused to talk, other than to ask the reporter’s name and directing questions to committee members.

A member of Shinseki’s staff stood between the reporter and the secretary, repeatedly trying to intervene.

To hear audio of the one-sided interview, click here.

Miller then ticked off a series of efforts he and other committee members have pushed to ensure VA's budget is fully funded and protected from budget cuts or sequestration.

What that added money has bought is "lofty promises, excitement about new initiatives and technology, but lackluster at best results," Miller said.

Shinseki responded that the projections made last year that the backlog would come down were based on many assumptions, some of which didn't pan out.

"Anytime you write a long-term large plan that describes solving a complex problem, they are assumptions-based," Shinseki said. "We rely on those assumptions being fulfilled, one of which is there are no additional complicators that get added to the workload.

"Another assumption is that we are going to be funded for the things we say we need. If either of those things change, it's going to change the workflow."

Shinseki said he remains committed to ending the backlog by 2015 through a series of initiatives that will reach full implementation this year, including full deployment of new computerized document processing system.

"These were bold and ambitious goals then. They remain bold and ambitious goals today," Shinseki said. "But our veterans deserve a VA that advocates for them and then puts muscle into the words. Too many veterans wait too long to receive the benefits they deserve. We know this is unacceptable."

President Obama's budget for 2014 would increase VA funding by more than 10 percent overall. It would allocate $2.5 billion in operating funds to the Veterans Benefits Administration, which is responsible for processing disability claims, an increase of 13.6 percent from the current year.

Mandatory spending, made up mostly of disability and pension payments to veterans, would total $86.1 billion. Discretionary spending, which is not tied to entitlement payments, would be $66.5 billion, an increase of 4.3 percent over the current year.

About $55 billion of discretionary spending is to provide medical care.

The VA's budget will have increased by almost 60 percent since 2009, when Shinseki took office, if the president's proposal goes through.

In 2009, it took an average of 161 days to rate a disability claim. Today, it takes about 286 days, according to the VA's most recent figures.

Shinseki refused to answer questions from reporters after the hearing.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team.

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