VA Rx: Less Post Office, More Federal Express

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Disability claims flooded the VA office in Winston-Salem, N.C., last year.

In early 2008, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) faced a big problem: with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, over 405,000 pending disability claims awaited processing. Veterans’ advocates, outraged by the amount of pending claims, demanded accountability.

They got their wish when Daniel Cooper, a retired Navy vice admiral who served as VA benefits chief, resigned in February 2008. That move was welcomed as a signal that VA was prepared to get its house in order.  But the change in leadership was not enough, as a status-quo bureaucracy continued to muddle forward.

Over the last several years, matters have grown steadily worse at VA, as the department’s ability to meet its commitment to veterans has eroded even further. As Congressman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and I pointed out a few days ago, it’s time for another change of leadership at the VA—and then that change needs to be followed up with real, customer-oriented reforms aimed at restoring VA to its mission of service to veterans.

The numbers reflect the scope of the problem.

Despite soaring campaign rhetoric from the President about how he was going to fix VA, today the department is struggling with a backlog of more than 887,000 pending disability and compensation claims. A staggering 69% (616,000) of those claimants have been backlogged for more than 125 days. The number is soon projected to  top one million for the first time in history.

Which means veterans are waiting and waiting, for months on end, to receive the disability benefits they earned through service. VA reports that the average wait time for claims processing is 273 days, or about nine months. But in fact, the reality is even worse.

A recent examination of VA documents by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) dug deeper into the data to reveal that the true wait time for veterans filing their first claim is between 316 and 327 days. In some parts of the country, veterans are waiting longer than 600 days for their claims to be processed.

Imagine a combat veteran returning home after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. He’s eager to get back to work, but finds that with a 9.2% unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans, good jobs are scarce. And then, when applying for VA benefits for his war injuries, he learns he’ll have to wait more than a year and a half just to get a response.

Of course, that assumes his paperwork isn’t misplaced at some point in the process. Many veterans are asked to resubmit their applications and supporting materials after months of waiting, because VA officials are unable to locate their files. Over the last four years, VA has spent $537 million in an ambitious plan to migrate the claims process online, but even today an estimated 97% of veterans claims are filed on paper.

The endless delay of disability claims is the most visible sign of VA’s collapse as a service provider. But look beyond the claims backlog and you see a catalog of waste, unprofessionalism, bureaucratic ineptitude and appalling dysfunction at the VA:

–In March, whistle-blower reports from the VA medical center in Jackson, Miss., revealed complaints of shoddy management, chronic understaffing, missed diagnoses, and failures to properly clean and sterilize medical equipment—all leading to poorer service for the hospital’s veteran patients.

— In 2012, the VA Inspector General released a scathing watchdog report detailing how the department squandered millions on a pair of training conferences held at a luxury training resort. Among the expenses were limo and helicopter rides for VA employees, along with hotel upgrades and gifts from contractors to VA workers that fell afoul of federal ethics laws.

— Last fiscal year, the VA made $2.2 billion erroneous payments, suggesting that the department’s fiscal controls are embarrassingly lax, even by the standards of a federal agency.

This is more than simply an agency overburdened by a surge of requests for service. It’s evidence of systemic failure in the culture of VA.

This week my organization—Concerned Veterans for America—launched an online petition calling for the Obama Administration to relieve VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and bring in fresh executive leadership. Secretary Shinseki, for all his honorable and laudable service to the nation, is simply not up to the task of confronting the severe challenges that ail VA.

But we have to look beyond that step, and ask, what then? While replacing the secretary would send the right signal, the VA’s problems run far deeper than one man. What the department needs is a serious, top-to-bottom transformation.

In recent years, VA has been led by either retired military personnel or Washington, D.C., bureaucrats with a history at the agency. The thinking seems to have been that we need either an executive with experience at the agency, or a prominent general officer. We’ve seen the results that approach has garnered.

It’s time for President Obama to think differently by putting the VA under the stewardship of a private-sector executive leader with a record of results in corporate turnarounds. But it can’t stop there. The president must then empower this man or woman with the tools needed to streamline the department’s processes, improve the use of technology and hold workers accountable for their performance.

The goal: transform veterans’ dealings with the VA from a 20th century bureaucratic model to a 21st century customer service model.

Right now, the VA is like the U.S. Postal Service—sluggish, unresponsive and hidebound by bureaucracy.

But with a true commitment to transformation, the VA could be more like FedEx—rapid, ready and responsive.

You know the old truism that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet that’s precisely the model we’ve embraced when it comes to providing post-service benefits to our veterans, and it has brought VA to the point to collapse.

Veterans urge the president to think differently about the next round of VA leadership, and to give the next VA leader the tools he or she will need to succeed. Our veterans are counting on it.

Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.