President Obama touts veterans care as a top priority of his presidency, but
lawmakers increasingly weary of the long waits and hassles that veterans face in
receiving disability benefits are pressuring Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K.
Shinsheki to produce results.
With thousands of service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and trying to transition to civilian jobs, Mr. Obama and Congress have expanded the VA budget each year since 2009, doling out $25 billion in extra spending every year and sparing it from sequestration while other agencies have seen their budgets pinched.
But the extra money hasn't solved problems that have plagued the agency for decades and been exacerbated by the wars. As thousands of new veterans have flooded into the system, they wait months - sometimes years - to have their disability claims processed.
There's a glut of nearly a million pending disability claims at Veteran Affairs, 630,000 of which have been in limbo for more than 125 days, up from 164,000 in October 2009.
A major factor in the lengthy delays is the VA's ongoing struggle to streamline an entirely paper-based claims system by making health records electronic and searchable and coordinating them with separate Department of Defense records.
When Mr. Shinseki testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee on veterans affairs Thursday, frustrations boiled over.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat, held up a photo of 37,000 folders of veterans' health records stacked on top of file cabinets 2-feet high and two rows deep in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The VA's inspector general included the photo in a 2012 report that said so much paper created "an unsafe workspace for [VA] employees and appeared to have the potential to compromise the integrity of the building."
"I'd like to ask you all ... if you've taken a look at that and if you have, how do you sleep at night?" Ms. Lowey said. "Boxes and boxes of records in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It's amazing to me that these exist."
Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican, talked about a veteran who was blind in one eye and lost sight in the other eye because his doctors were waiting for lost VA health records and wouldn't operate without knowing his medical history.
"This has human consequences - it's not just electronic communications," he said.
Rep. John R. Carter, a Republican who represents Fort Hood Army Base in Texas, said he came to Congress in 2002 and that year listened to a similar hearing about the dire need to integrate VA and Defense health records.
Mr. Carter said he would "personally volunteer to go over to the VA and chew a-- once a month" to make sure agency officials and employees are working as hard as they can to get the new electronic system fully up and running.
"I'm an old trial judge. I know how to do that pretty well," he added.
Mr. Shinseki, a retired general, said that as a veteran himself, no one wants to see the backlogs cleared more than he does, and he argues the agency is making progress, noting that 20 regional offices are using a new electronic benefits system with the goal of having it up and running in all 56 by the end of the year.
He said a recent decision to allow more post-traumatic stress disorder cases and add new diseases, such as exposure to Agent Orange, to the list of illnesses and conditions the agency would treat as a disability ballooned the agency's case burden by the hundreds of thousands.
"I was told by [Vietnam veterans] we were waiting for them to" die, Mr. Shinseki told the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee earlier this week. "I can't think of a more demeaning circumstance than for a veteran to feel their VA ... looked upon their situation like that."
Still, he told senators that the backlog is "unacceptable" and pledged to eliminate it by 2015, the same year he hopes to have the transition from paper to electronic records complete.
Persistent complaints about bureaucratic bungling at the VA have gone on for decades, but they reached a fever pitch during Obama's administration earlier this month. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marine Corps, penned an op-ed with Concerned Veterans of America President Pete Hegseth calling for Mr. Shinseki's resignation.
"We have been strong supporters of the department's efforts to improve operations, but the time for good intentions is over," they wrote. "Veterans are not getting the service they deserve."
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