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VA Leadership: An Absurd Vision for Ailing Veterans

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Gen. Eric Shinseki testifies during his confirmation hearing to head the Department of Veterans Affairs on January 14, 2009.

I remember very clearly the moment I knew I would be leaving the Army. It came in late 2007, a few months before I shipped out on my second Iraq tour. This was nearly five years into the Iraq War and the Army, which had also been sending fewer, but significant numbers of troops to Afghanistan, was hemorrhaging captains. Young officers like me, having hit their service obligation (4 years for ROTC cadets, 5 years for West Pointers) had decided they’d had enough and wanted to see what the civilian world had in store.

In order to slow the exodus, the Army began offering bonuses for captains willing to sign on for another hitch. I declined the bonus, fairly certain that I wanted to go to graduate school after my second tour. But my commander and the two majors in my battalion tried to convince me to stay. They were great officers, and I loved serving under them, so I listened. When I told them that, being single at the time, I thought it would be hard to keep up our incredible deployment schedule (my unit was averaging a year in Iraq, then a year home before returning to combat) and some day start a family, one of the majors told me, “Don’t worry. Once this stabilizes, you’ll be guaranteed one year deployed, then two years at home, then one year deployed.” When I considered the absurdity of that future–having to tell your child, “Don’t worry, daddy will miss your 5th birthday, but I’ll be here for 6 and 7, but then I’ll have to miss your 8th,” I knew I was done. While I have abiding respect for my friends who did stay in and deal with that kind of tempo, it wasn’t the life I wanted.

I had a similar reaction when I read the speech Secretary Eric Shinseki gave to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno. I first saw the headline in the Military Times: “Shinseki: Backlog means VA reaching more vets.” My first reaction was, this can’t be real; he can’t be standing up before the oldest veterans organization in America and telling them that a dismal failure is actually a smashing success. But that’s exactly what he said. Shinseki said that because of better outreach, the 400,000 vets seeking claims three years ago has grown to more than 880,000. Back then, he said, less than a third of veterans were even enrolled with the VA, and the effort to bring more into the system has contributed to the delays we have been seeing.

I’ll buy that (barely). I’ve been a supporter of Shinseki’s and when I have criticized his leadership at the VA, I did so with kid gloves. Shinseki is a decorated veteran himself who was wounded in combat. After a mine blew off half of his foot in Vietnam, he fought to stay in the Army and became the service’s Chief of Staff. In that role, he was the only one who was truly honest with Congress about what it would take to secure Iraq, and his estimation was eerily accurate.

But since taking over the VA, Shinseki has been “AWOL” as a veterans group leader told Joe Klein back in June. “He’s been a quiet disaster at the VA…and I mean quiet,” the man told Joe. But it was Joe who put it best on the subject of Shinseki and veterans: “The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should be a noisy advocate for these terrific kids.”

It wasn’t advocacy that we heard Tuesday–either the loud or the quiet kind–when the secretary said this: “I have committed to ending the claims backlog in 2015, by putting in place a system that processes all claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level.” Yes, 125 days. That’s over 4 months. That means that three years from now, a veteran filing a claim might still have to wait more than a third of a year. This is an absurd vision.

The disaster at the VA is not one of Shinseki’s making, but he hasn’t fixed it, and his goals fall far short. The VA is an antiquated bureaucracy in desperate need of an overhaul. In May, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the VA’s Oakland regional claims center had paper files stacked to the ceiling. Shinseki’s promise of 125 days is far better than the average in Oakland this year–320 days–or the national average wait time–241 days. But four months is entirely too long to ask veterans to wait.

A 48 percent improvement is far and away more than we’ve been able to ask from our government in recent times. But when that leaves us with a better, but still terrible situation, we haven’t reached a goal. The vision should be for a modern, effective system that takes care of our veterans much faster. It may take until 2015 to get the claims backlog down to 125 days, but that’s not the end state we need.

When we reach 125 days, which I know will be difficult to achieve, the work won’t be complete. It will only have begun.

46 comments
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Ask Nod
Ask Nod

Sadly, we are told yet again that this is the one. This is the tipping point. Success is just around the corner. It took 8 months to get a denial in 1994. It now takes 16 months if you're lucky. The error rate when factoring in the Court is greater than 60%.  How, pray tell are we going to magically arrive at the mythic 125/98% in three years? What are they smoking? Read my new book on Veterans claims and see how to do it once and get it right. 

http://asknod.wordpress.com/bo... . VA would have us believe with the new DBQs that we can speed this up. One problem-no medical nexus or room for it. Guess who will be happy to provide that for you? Yep, the VA examiner as in "your adversary". 

Jimmy Ray Thacker
Jimmy Ray Thacker

VA has no interest in fixing anything. The longer they stall, the fewer will use them, which is exactly what they want. They do not hire veterans, and they are some of the most rude people I have ever encountered.

nvrtalk
nvrtalk

Until the early 1990s, care at VA hospitals was so substandard that Congress considered shutting down the entire system and giving ex-G.I.s vouchers for treatment at private facilities. Today it's a very different story. The VA runs the largest integrated health-care system in the country, with more than 1,400 hospitals, clinics and nursing homes employing 14,800 doctors and 61,000 nurses. And by a number of measures, this government-managed health-care program--socialized medicine on a small scale--is beating the marketplace. For the sixth year in a row, VA hospitals last year scored higher than private facilities on the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, based on patient surveys on the quality of care received. The VA scored 83 out of 100; private institutions, 71. Males 65 years and older receiving VA care had about a 40% lower risk of death than those enrolled in Medicare Advantage, whose care is provided through private health plans or HMOs, according to a study published in the April edition of Medical Care. Harvard University just gave the VA its Innovations in American Government Award for the agency's work in computerizing patient records.Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magaz...

ULURU
ULURU

How many of the employees at University of Michigan are enrolled in the VA health care system? I thought so.

nvrtalk
nvrtalk

You are not one to read to the bottom of an article... i thought so. You are their favorite kind of pawn.

They wrote in august 2006 about upcoming threats:"But it's becoming more and more "ideologically inconvenient for some to have such a stellar health-delivery system being run by the government," says Margaret O'Kane, president of the National Committee for Quality Assurance, which rates health plans for businesses and individuals."The author and half  the posters are tools of a campaign to discredit quality healthcare run by the government, as fore seen by this same publication only 6 years ago.

Patrick Conradt
Patrick Conradt

I think Secretary Eric Shinseki has been a great advocate for veterans.  Part of the increase in the backlog for disability claims is allowance for agent orange exposure during the Viet Nam war.  I applaud recognition for exposure to agent orange.  I became enrolled in VA Health Care last year and am very pleased with the services I have received so far.  I think the people at the VA outpatient clinic I go to do a very good job on my behalf.  I am grateful for the services I have received so far.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

You know, hiring IBM or Oracle and giving them enough money to create a proper admin system would go a long way toward fixing the problem. Why anyone uses actual paper in this day and age is beyond me. Visa can process hundreds of millions of transactions a day, without significant errors, and the VA is still using paper. Once you get rid of the paper, you can start getting rid of the people who slow it down.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

The reality is ever since MacArthur sent in the tanks in Washington, the Vets have been getting the short end of the stick.

My late brother in law and his best friend who served together on a old conventional sub and who both died of the same extremely rare brain cancer after cleaning the subs engines numerous times with highly toxic and carcinogenic solvents and little or no protection.

Navy's conclusion - - coincidence.

Yeah just like the Atomic vets, just coincidence.

The armed service and its tyrannical and inhumane structure consume people the same as any other material asset. 

Once you are no longer an asset you are a liability and should be disposed of by the cheapest and most efficient means possible.

They don't say it, but it's what they do.

HunterST2
HunterST2

As soon as the Republicans get in this will all change. They will get rid of the VA; especially the medical benefits. They will only be cheering Rah for the troops until they get your vote.

2ndarmoredcav
2ndarmoredcav

I would remind Mr. Rawlings, the The American Legion is the oldest verteran's organization, chartered by Congress September 16, 1919.

OEFSniper6
OEFSniper6

I retired as a Command Sergeant Major with 24 years all in the infantry just 3 years ago.  I see my guys needing a lot of help.  But the bulbs from the VA keep getting dimmer and dimmer.  More wait time, more chance for the guys to end up eating bullets, more vets with no resolution on injuries, no resolution on anything.  And yet they keep going out and we are seeing them having less of a soul at times.  We need more from the VA.  Those that have left the Army need help now, not three years from now. 

OEFSniper6
OEFSniper6

By the way, I am a recently retired CSM and spent my 24 years in the Infantry.  I have a lot of my soldiers that need help and it just keeps looking dimmer and dimmer all the time.   And the words like "wellfare for vets" by some ignorant pup congressmen make me want to break open the gun safe and make some war.  I may be retired but I aint dead.   I have my own issues that I see the VA about and I rip ass every time I see somebody there treating a vet like crap or with a "don't give a rip attitude.  I don't imagine they like seeing me walk in anymore.......... 

OEFSniper6
OEFSniper6

The VA needs a good enima.  But, the problem is the congress.  In WWII, just over 11% of the population participated in the war directly.  In Vietnam, just over 4% of the population participated in the war directly.  In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only 0.42% of the population has participated directly.  With that few, it makes it awful easy for the congress to ignore that small percentage of us that were there and did that and got the t-shirt.  WWII had congressmen who had sons and daughters gone to war.  Vietnam and the wars now not so much.  Makes it real easy to just blow us off and not press anyone to do something.  In fact, it makes it easy to say, "Lets, cut some of this "wellfare for veterans" that we have out there".  As a combat vet, that pisses me off.

HunterST2
HunterST2

 Once the current wars are over about all you can expect from government for your service is a T-shirt. especially if the Republicans get in.

LastWaltz
LastWaltz

I respect your opinion as the author of the piece and as I stated, privatization is the last card to play.  The POTUS could be held accountable on this issue alone during the election and he could lose major votes if Romney could come up with a working plan.  But since all Congress wants to do is fight with each other all seems lost.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

Romney doesn't have a plan for anything. But he will tell you what you want to hear.

HunterST2
HunterST2

 The Democrats have genuine feelings for the vets. The republicans will toss us like a used tissue.

Sokufu
Sokufu

I am a Vietnam Era vet.  I got out of the army in January 1972.  While in the army I sustained a serious back and knee injury.  I filed claim after claim only to be told I had filed the claim wrong or I  didn't  list the Officer on Duty that night.  I couldn't work and finally went self employed till I couldn't do that.  I finally filed a claim again and ten years later after numerous appeals I am 50% disabled.  Well so are the fellows coming home from Iraq that got shot or injured and can't work either.  All of my civilian doctors say I am totally disabled but the VA says I am not unemployable.  What's that?  Another mystery term or hurtle to jump over? How do you prove a negative.  You don't.  My recent appeal is still waiting 44 months after I filed a disagreement.  I have heard every cock and bull story from VA employees who have taken me aside and suggested what I should do.  I have had less that a perfect life and I am not blaming anybody, but the next time I am asked to go fight for this country I think I  will go to Canada.  This country does not honor their veterans who sacrifice for our freedom or take care of them.  They give lip service and  tell you what they are doing, but in the end its nothing more than political pandering.

misterdanton
misterdanton

Long time no see folks. I had jus t  checked my notes, and it was May 21st and May 28th that i had notes typed out about regarding the magazine here.

I would also like to report that LIFE magazine has an awesome cover, I saw it recently and do, too highly recommend you too look at it.

Now before I get into the whole NAVY MANATEE shenanigan -thing and allow others invitatiously to review these notes as well as Joseph Smiths PRE-amble if you will, could we also get into the Maj. Drunk Driving jokes...and of course the memories of , well i guess we could address the human lives we as American people have dealt with, whether loss, depravity,abandonment...or as alot of people like to call ignorance and Hoarding.

12-sustaining the law....I will make that brief and hopefully understood.

So I get hungry or crave a ciggarette, due to the monitary value of such items..the petty nuisance is that i cannot afford it. Now , if you recall Dennis Miller..and his innumerable jokes of the fruitful cambodian people....or even the gesticulating of Sincere apology and worry , where the people of america both follow and fight these tragic wars in spirit...as well as acknowledge the pain and suffering of those going through traumas...its' just too much to address.

Events where we are misled, though we..and again as mormons this is the 13th article of praiseworthy and lovely things to endure and deliberate.

My motion to suppress recent writing or discoveries of some long letter i found in Utah pertaining to mormon information may or may not be adressed or recognized...butI, a morman....am critisized for my lowly sadness, unjustifiable unhappiness...and participation in other peoples hobbies.

LastWaltz
LastWaltz

We agree with the article and all of you.  Our family member's claim is 710 days old - that is not unusual - the VA is lying.  The VA contracted physician wrote a medical report in Dec 2011, that the injury was caused by his active duty.  Wouldn't it make sense to process and rate all these claims first? The VA needs to be dismantled and privatized - we are sorry to suggest it but this is not working and there is too much suffering.

HunterST2
HunterST2

A private contractor will think only about profit. You are foolish to wish for privatization. If the Republicans get in you will get it anyway. Halliburton, the ex-vice president's company comes to mind. They re headquartered in Dubai so they could dodge paying American taxes. This is our thanks after they got that fat no bid contract in Iraq. Maybe they will get the VA contract, NO BID.

Guest
Guest

 I don't know enough about the VA claims system to comment. But, I will say that the VA should be talking about the *median* amount of time rather than the *average.* Lies, damn lies, and statistics...

ljb860ljb
ljb860ljb

 Sorry, the VA needs change but privatization will only raise costs and will make a bad situation worse.

badger22
badger22

I'm totally confused as to how 4 months is too long to wait for a disability claim. That seems perfectly reasonable to me. Do we want ANY accountability in this government system?? Obviously we shouldn't be working from the vantage point that veterans submitting claims are "guilty until proven innocent" and there is room for improvement in the process. But a 4 month wait for a substantial monthly paycheck from the government seems reasonable to me. Especially when you can get memorandum ratings for education and employment purposes  in advance of a formal disability rating. 

Also, part of the reason the claims process takes so long is because pertinent information isn't included the first time the claim is submitted. Perhaps our younger veterans organizations should step up to the plate and provide more direct assistance for claims submissions. That would certainly help speed the process up.  Our generation of veterans may point to the VFW and Legion and DAV and refer to them as being "out of touch" with our generation, but they actually have service officers that actively work with veterans to submit claims. We could use more of them. 

The author pointed out the VA is an "antiquated bureaucracy in desperate need of an overhaul." But I didn't see a single solution in this piece.

NickV
NickV

Miss the point.  Not waiting for a Pay Check,  waiting for continuity of care or to  be eval for treatment of an ongoing problem. Such as PTSD or TBI.

VN196
VN196

Health care availability should be continous from day of discharge,  especially after one writesa blank check toward his life and fuure.

HunterST2
HunterST2

 I bet it's still better than in the 80's or 90's. Then the VA hospitals were death traps amp; the doctor's certificates on the wall were in Farsi or Chinese or some other foreign language. There are a lot of guys busted up now who wouldn't have made it in VietNam. Modern medicine saved them.  I hope to God it doesn't go back to what it was. If it does they won't have a chance.

NateRawlings
NateRawlings

First, yes–4 months is entirely too long to wait on a claim. I just wrote a story about firearms licensing and the ATF will approve or disapprove any and all Federal Firearms Licenses within 60 days. If the ATF can get its act together in 2 months, the VA needs to be able to do the same for vets. 

You're right, we need to and will address ways that the VA can overhaul their processes, and it starts with getting off of the paper file system. I have more friends whose claims have been lost because the VA in many areas is so disorganized. A full overhaul to a digital system would be expensive and take time, but they are working on it. 

I also agree that we need to leverage resources like the VFW, Foreign Legion, IAVA and other organizations to help "prep the battlefield" to use an Army term before a vet submits a VA claim. Those organizations have a to offer. 

JayMae
JayMae

"Perhaps our younger veterans organizations should step up to the plate

and provide more direct assistance for claims submissions."

Who? Like IAVA? That's right, they aren't even a VSO. They're too busy promoting themselves (literally, Paul:  http://thisainthell.us/blog/?p... to actually do anything helpful for veterans. I guess promoting beer is something..

OgOggilby
OgOggilby

Given that as far back as WWI the White House had to use a special escape tunnel to run away from all the vets that wanted the money they were promised. Uncle Sam over and over shows by actions that they hate our vets as well as us citizens. Really, think about what they do to the soldiers and us regular people. We know the wars are phony and we are unable to win anything anymore so other than personal profit for Congress and their brethren there is NO reason to go to war at least for us people. Our politicians now refer to all soldiers as "heros" so why do they lie to all of them and us if they didn't hate? I am using the word "hate" just as the gov't would use it if they wanted to go after someone. Actions speak louder than lies or do they?

Is seems the only ones who "deserve" real benefits are our politicians and the very very rich.

HunterST2
HunterST2

 It is traditional politics to Cheer the troops DURING the war amp; dump them amp; any amp; all promises as soon as the fighting is over.

ljb860ljb
ljb860ljb

 I have got to agree 100%, especially as in the midst of war they start to means test vets. For a nation that asks it's citizens to setup and put their life on the line they sure don't appreciate those lives and disrespect those that come back. And as the author I decided I no longer believed in the mission while in Vietnam and walked away, and as the author there were all kinds of inducements thrown at me to stay, very glad I made my decision as I did and have only regretted those I left behind.

W
W

The VA system costs too much and depends on too much pharmacy.  Use the original GI Bill model, and allow returning vets (and their families) to make their own decisions about education, home, small business or small farm ownership, trade school, unemployment etc.  Reversing the burden of proof on disability claims from the veteran to the VA would be a good starting point.  Way to many co-dependent GS employees to manage way to many co-dependent veterans. 

Sue Frasier
Sue Frasier

This piece is well done and echos the sentiments of many backlogged veterans around the country. The only thing Eric Shinseki has managed to do is to help the corrupt and incompetent VA Raters arrive at the wrong decisions even faster. How is that a step forward. And missing in action is an understatement. Eric Shinseki and Tammy Duckworth went on a world tour named "It's All About ME!" and then when they got back in the office she resigned to run for Congress. Now how is THAT a step forward. Vets across the country really do have to stop endorsing and backing "service candidates" for public office and elections when they have no record of sound and rational action in the system to point to. Richard Carmona is the best choice for the next VA Secretary but he is also running for a Senate seat so we will have to wait for November elections to know if he will be available.

misterdanton
misterdanton

weird. that sounds dumb. I guess this is an attack on someone trying to persevere and gain MBachmann-like identity.

Kevin Brent
Kevin Brent

I say this as a war Veteran myself: From 1941 to 1945 the only way any member of the military went home at all, was crippled or in a pine box. There was no rotating home for anyone for the duration of WWII. Men were gone for 4 years straight and deployed into combat several times a year. And, they were all draftees who didn't have a choice to enlist or not enlist. Same thing for Korea and for the Vietnam War.

Ord Miller
Ord Miller

Kevin Brent:   In 1943  the Heavy Bombers Crews (B-17’s and B-24’s) of the 8th Army Air Force, had a set limit of 25 Combat Missions. 

Your lie that they were all draftees is a slur on the 38% of the American fighting men of WWII who enlisted.  If you are going to pontificate like a third-rate drunken historian sitting on his dung heap, get you facts correct, fool.

Ord Miller
Ord Miller

Kevin Brent:  In 1943, the Heavy Bombers Crews (B-17’s and B-24’s) of the 8th Army Air Force had a set limit of 25 Combat Missions, and were sent home.  Few survived more than twelve missions. 

Saying they were all draftees is a lie, and a slur on the 38% of American fighting men who enlisted to defend their country in WWII.

If you are going to pontificate like a third-rate drunken historian sitting on his dung heap, get your facts straight.  Anti-American moron.

Ord Miller
Ord Miller

Kevin Brent:  In 1943, the Heavy Bomber Crews (B-17’s and B-24’s) of the 8th Army Air Force had a set limit of 25 Combat Missions, and then were sent home.  They were lucky to survive more than twelve missions.If you are going to pontificate like some third-rate historian on his drunken dung heap get your facts corrected  Saying that they were all draftees is a slur on the almost 40% of the fighting men who enlisted in WWII to fight for their country.  Anti-American moron.

HunterST2
HunterST2

 Doesn't mean they should just be thrown out with the trash.

Guest
Guest

 Wow, tours in Vietnam were four years long?

I've never understood this "because it sucked back then, it should suck now" mentality. Shouldn't we strive to improve? Health advancements have improved to the point that soldiers who would not have survived to return home or to the battlefield can do so. Unfortunately, often the saving of a life means that the quality of life is diminished. We are able to save people we couldn't save before.  And I say that as a war Veteran myself.

misterdanton
misterdanton

I think that at close range song by madonna would be an awesome attachment.

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