The VA Backlog: Where Are We Now? Really?

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In recent months, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has come under sharp criticism for the mounting pile of backlogged and pending benefits claims for military veterans.

The list of critics is long, and includes members of Congress from both parties, investigative reporters, newspaper editorial boards, veterans organizations (including Concerned Veterans for America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), the liberal late-night host Jon Stewart of The Daily Show…the list goes on.

So in the interest of balance, we should look at the other side. The VA and its defenders have been busily pushing the claim that the backlog disaster is fast improving.

For example, check out this recent piece by Brandon Friedman on Battleland, which couldn’t have been more pro-VA if it had been written by someone from the department’s public affairs office. Which coincidentally is where Friedman worked from 2009-1012. (Full disclosure: I’m also a former VA employee, where I served from 2001-2009.)

Friedman, a U.S. Army veteran and a smart guy, offers a staunch defense of the VA’s performance in the age of backlogged claims, providing a good historical overview of how the situation got so bad, and offering a rather rosy view that things are improving. If you’re interested in this issue, you should read his take for a balanced view.

Friedman has also been harshly critical of CVA (on his Twitter account) for promoting the “#MillionVetBacklog” hashtag to raise awareness of the VA’s problems. Unfortunately, like many people who make a living in the world of political spin, he takes it a spin too far, trying to brand the “#MillionVetBacklog” as what he calls “a lie.” That’s a pretty incendiary charge, given that the source for the 1 million backlogged claims forecast was the VA itself.

In January, the VA published its strategic plan to address the backlog, which forecast that the number of veterans waiting on claims would hit 1 million by March 2013, and then increase (before tapering off in later years). As reporter Aaron Glantz at the Center for Investigative Reporting wrote in March:

As a candidate, Obama had promised to revamp a “broken VA bureaucracy,” but the documents reveal that many of the administration’s attempts – including efforts to boost staffing and computerize claims processing – have fallen apart in the implementation. Calls to the White House press office were not returned.

Despite agency promises to eliminate the claims backlog by 2015, the internal documents show the VA expects the number of veterans waiting – currently about 900,000 – to continue to increase throughout 2013 and top a million by the end of this month.

It’s rather uncharitable—not to say uncivil—of Friedman to cast the claim as a “lie,” when it represents a perfectly reasonable forecast. But charity and civility have never been hallmarks of the Obama Administration’s debate tactics, so I suppose that was to be expected.

And of course, Friedman’s defense ignores many of the other serious problems at the VA, like appallingly wasteful conference spending (which resulted in the department’s top human-resources official resigning in disgrace) and exorbitant bonuses paid to VA executives as the department’s service to veterans deteriorated. To pretend these problems don’t exist is to be willfully blind to the VA’s dysfunctional culture, as they represent additional reasons that veterans have lost confidence in the department.

If the VA is indeed getting a handle on the backlog, it’s fair to argue that the criticism of the backlog from various quarters served as a spur to action—that is, we likely would not have seen progress without the tough, fact-based assessments and advocacy of critics like CVA, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, members of Congress, The Daily Show, the Center for Investigative Reporting, et al.

If the backlog, or the combination of backlogged and pending claims, were never to reach 1 million claims, that will be a fine thing. But it’s a little early to be declaring victory. There are still far too many veterans waiting far too long for their benefits claims to be processed (and their assessments of the service they receive from the VA, as a recent CVA survey found, are further indication that the department has a long way to go when it comes to customer service).

So even if I’m not prepared to share Friedman’s positive view of the VA’s performance, I appreciate his contribution to the debate. And it’s a debate that needs to continue. That’s why this Thursday, June 20, CVA is hosting a special panel presentation focusing on VA reform as part of our Defend & Reform series of policy discussion. Click here to learn more, and play a role in helping to make sure our veterans get the help to which their service entitles them.

Darin Selnick, an Air Force veteran, was a presidential appointee to the Department of Veterans Affairs from 2001-09. He is an independent consultant and a member of the Concerned Veterans for America’s organizing committee.