DIBACCO: Solemn promises broken

A backlog of veterans’ claims dishonors their service

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This Memorial Day is punctuated by one other scandal in the Obama administration. The inability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to process disability and related claims of our nation’s veterans in a timely manner is a shameful situation that may well add not only to anxiety among veterans, but even to the number of deaths of those who served their nation. About 600,000 claims are backlogged — pending, in other words — for more than 125 days.

VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki has vowed to end the backlog by 2015, a hollow commitment given the fact that his department, second only to the Department of Defense in size, needs to service veterans in the here and now, not in 2015. Excuses for the problem focus on substituting state-of-the-art digital records for paper ones. The reality is that the mess reflects the trickle-down ethics and management style of President Obama. Scarcely illustrating a hardworking chief executive, with his frequent golf games and taxpayer-funded, campaign-style rallies and vacations, Mr. Obama has set a low barometer of expectation for achieving results. Or even knowing about what’s going on in his shop, given recent revelations about his complete ignorance of the Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s bugging of Associated Press reporters in one of the most serious leaks, according to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., during the president’s tenure.

To be sure, some congressmen come to the aid of Mr. Shinseki, a former four-star general and Army chief of staff, citing his overall admirable character. However, deportment is not the only critical quality needed in a Cabinet secretary. Rather, it is the ability to manage staff so as to achieve results with dispatch. Can you imagine if it took 125 days to process Social Security benefits? Or to get Medicare to approve hospitalization and other benefits for seniors? Or how about to deliver unemployment and food-stamp benefits?

On its website, the VA, like so many other federal government agencies, engages in public relations about its history and necessity. “The Department of Veterans Affairs,” reads one such entry, “has a proud history of supporting its veterans.” To contemporary veterans waiting for the processing of claims, though, history has no relevance. The present and the future for them are now.

There are about 280,000 employees working for the VA. If each one, including Mr. Shinseki, were given beefed-up training sessions on how to process applications for claims, then in a matter of days — with each employee working on two or three — the backlog could be cleared. If the argument is that the processing is too complicated to be handled quickly, then it should be simplified. Moreover, there should be no shame for high-level VA employees getting their hands into the nitty-gritty of application processing for those who risked their lives for this nation.

As it is, the department waited until May 15 to get its overtime machinery in place for claims processors at its Connecticut office, as well as some others throughout the nation. In Connecticut, the average time for processing claims is an astonishing 213 days.

To be fair, the claims backlog is not unique to this administration, but recall that Mr. Obama is the president who a few weeks ago at a commencement address at Ohio State University urged graduates not to listen to conservatives who bash big government, but rather to put their faith in it. Veterans with claims seeking to put their faith in his administration have found that the number of their colleagues dying while awaiting benefits has tripled on his watch, from 6,400 to 2009 to 19,500 in 2012.

Lest we forget on this Memorial Day, when the VA prepared for its first major and continuing responsibility during World War II, with a flood of returning veterans, the nation made solemn promises. The GI Bill of Rights was the foundation of that commitment with its comprehensive approach to the needs of veterans. “It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in the armed forces,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt in signing the bill, “that the American people do not intend to let them down.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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