Commentary byDarin Selnick is a U.S. Air Force veteran and former special assistant to the secretary at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He is Concerned Veterans for America’s top VA adviser. CVA is spearheading the VA Accountability Project online at VAAccountability.org.
A recent Reno Gazette-Journal report cast a harsh light on the shameful reality of the local office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which has been ranked the “worst in the nation” for processing veterans’ benefit claims.
How bad is it? Reno area veterans submitting claims last year waited an average of more than 426 days—more than 14 months—for their claims to be processed.
But it’s not just Reno. The collapse of the VA’s capability to deliver services to veterans and their families has reached crisis levels nationwide. And despite the Obama administration’s repeated pledges to address the problem, the VA’s performance has only grown more dysfunctional over the last five years.
Fortunately, veterans groups and members of Congress from both parties are banding together to demand reform at the VA, with the goal of ensuring the department is more accountable to those it serves. It’s about time.
(AP Photo/The Times-Picayune, Michael DeMocker)
The failures of the VA bureaucracy are well known. The backlog of benefits claims, which is particularly acute in Reno, is the most visible indicator: nationwide, the number of claims backlogged more than 125 days is still more than 343,000.
But the problems go far beyond the benefits backlog. The news is filled with reports of substandard care for veterans at VA health facilities, leading to sickness and even death. Employee abuse is rampant: a recent inspector general’s report detailed how a VA employee was promoted even though he skipped work, used government computers for sex chats and cheated the agency out of almost $31,000.
Is it a question of too little funding? The answer is decidedly “no.”
The VA’s budget has increased by 57 percent over the last five years and is slated to add another $10 billion for next year, as Congress recognized the need for more investment in veterans’ services as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to wind down. There’s little evidence that pouring more funding into the bureaucracy would fix what’s wrong—at a certain point, agencies simply cannot effectively absorb more dollars or personnel.
What the VA needs isn’t more taxpayer dollars; it needs reform centered on greater accountability for its managers and employees.
A telling detail in the Reno Gazette-Journal article is that the VA’s regional director never responded to any of the newspaper’s questions over a two-month period as the story was being developed. It probably gave the reporter a taste of what it’s like to be a veteran dealing with the unresponsive VA bureaucracy.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, before the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the effects the government shutdown is having on benefits and services to veterans. About 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month if the partial government shutdown continues into late October, Shinseki told lawmakers Wednesday. Some 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents will see pension payments stopped. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
This is par for the course for the VA, which routinely declines to respond not only to its critics, but also to the media and to the department’s Congressional overseers. It’s a manifestation of the department’s problems with accountability—VA managers never have to explain their performance and are virtually never held responsible for the department’s poor results.
This isn’t about finding scapegoats or sacrificial lambs. It’s about fixing what is wrong at a very dysfunctional agency. In Congress, the VA Management Accountability Act was introduced in February to empower the VA secretary to remove failing executives—a common sense move that’s attracted bipartisan support and endorsements from various veterans’ organizations.
My fellow veterans will grasp this principle instantly, because our military training is centered around being accountable to one’s brothers and sisters in arms, to one’s superiors and to one’s country. In the military, we learn that results matter. We should expect no less from the public servants at the VA.
But we shouldn’t wait and hope that Washington takes action—it’s up to veterans, their families and their supporters to send a clear message that we expect reform.
“It was great being a soldier, but it sucks being a vet,” Iraq veteran Jesse Daunis told the Reno news reporter.
Those words sum up the experience that too many veterans have—great pride and a sense of achievement in their service, followed by a profound sense of letdown and betrayal in their civilian life. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The good news is that there is a growing awareness that business as usual at the VA is simply not going to cut it any longer—our veterans, their families and the American taxpayers deserve better from this department charged with such a vital service mission.
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