The new secretary of Veterans Affairs, retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, got a recent tour of the paperwork battlefield on which VA claim adjudicators serve every day. It was a bracing scene — literally.
“You walk into one of our rooms where … decisions are being made about disabilities for veterans (and) see individuals sitting at a desk with stacks of paper that go up halfway to the ceiling. And as they finish one pile, another pile comes in,” Shinseki, former Army chief of staff, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Feb. 4.
“There are 11,100 people doing this … good people, hired to do a rather challenging job in which they are trying to apply judgment to situations that occurred years ago,” Shinseki said. Paperwork, he added, doesn’t draw out “a full appreciation for the context of combat.”
The army of claim adjudicators is equal in size to the 82nd Airborne Division, Shinseki said. It grew by 4,000 in the last two years. Another 1,100 will be hired this year to address VA’s claims backlog.
It’s “a brute force solution” to a problem best solved with an electronic claim processing system. Information technology, he said, could produce the “timely, accurate, consistent decision-making” that veterans deserve.
“If we don’t … create a paperless process,” Shinseki told lawmakers, “I’ll report a year from now that we hired more people to do this.”
Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., said Shinseki should make another visit soon to one of VA’s file rooms. “It’s almost dangerous,” said Snyder. The rooms “are overwhelmed” with claims. Some individual claims have swelled to “three, four and five volumes.”
Ironically, Snyder said, technology might be aggravating the problem. Veterans who look continuously to strengthen disability claims are making Internet searches. Printouts on all aspects of their conditions or diseases are then sent to the VA to be added to case files.
“The files will just keep growing,” Snyder said. “We’ve got to get a handle on this whole thing.”
Shinseki was warmly received by the committee where he laid out administration priorities for veterans. Behind him, representatives of various veterans’ service organizations mostly nodded heads in agreement.
They didn’t nod, however, when Shinseki declined to endorse a legislative priority for many VSOs this year: a bill to require that VA health budgets be funded a year ahead of normal appropriations. Advocates say this will ensure timely funding of VA hospitals. They no longer would have to operate on the cheap under a “continuing resolution” because the VA budget got bogged down by a partisan fight...
In late January, many VSOs hailed such a bill, the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform Act, reintroduced for 2009 by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, Senate VA Committee chairman. But Shinseki implied Congress simply needs to act more responsibly on VA appropriation bills.
“My preference would be for a timely budget and I will assure you I’ll do my part,” he said. While Army chief of staff, Shinseki recalled, “I lived with continuing resolutions and I know full well the impact they bring.”
If his experience as VA secretary shows health care budgets still can’t get passed on time, then “other options” will be discussed, Shinseki said.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: