Undoubtedly, the Veterans Benefits Administration has its work cut out for it in trying to solve the problems that have plagued the claims process for years. Not the least of which has been a long-term shortage of resources and a cyclical lack of leadership and commitment to improve the system. Both the legislative and the executive branches of government, going back for many years, share the blame for the situation.
Finally Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey and their team have taken on the long-neglected task of resolving those problems. What’s more, there has been remarkable progress toward changing the VBA’s culture, increasing the claims workforce, providing better training and instituting greater accountability up and down the line.
They have demonstrated a heretofore absent willingness and commitment to transform a dysfunctional system so that it better serves veterans and the national interests. The plan they have put in place is designed to ensure that veterans’ disability claims are decided correctly, efficiently and with compassion. When fully implemented by 2014, I am optimistic that it will bring great improvement in the system that I and millions of other veterans rely upon to fulfill our nation’s promises to those who have served.
The claims backlog is a consequence of years of inadequate resources, lack of organization, outdated paper-based processing, and numerous other factors. Among them are the Secretary’s decision to grant new benefits to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and the VA’s unprecedented outreach campaign to make an entire generation of young veterans more aware of the benefits they’ve earned, which I believe were the right things to do.
The clear fact is that there is no quick fix to such a monumental, complex problem. And all the hand wringing and rock throwing in the world won’t make it go away. The only way to solve it is through a systematic, reasoned and practical reformation that takes advantage of modern technology that will improve the quality and accuracy of claims decisions and sustain the integrity of a tried-and-true benefits system. And that takes time.
I firmly believe that this is exactly what Secretary Shinseki and Under Secretary Hickey have set in motion. Instead of yelling, “Off with their heads!” the far better tack is to provide them the resources and the support and patience needed to enable them to accomplish their mission. To do less would simply maintain the status quo, which is unacceptable.
David W. Gorman is a combat-injured Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He is a long-time veterans advocate with extensive knowledge of the Department of Veterans Affairs and a retired executive director of DAV’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.