Memorial Day mission: Break the backlog at Veterans Affairs

Each Memorial Day, as we honor our nation’s fallen heroes, we are also reminded of the enormous debt of gratitude we owe the more than 20 million American veterans still with us today. Regrettably, nearly a million of these veterans are currently being shortchanged.

After decades of mismanagement, the Department of Veterans Affairs is buried under a mountain of backlogged disability benefits compensation claims. Nearly 900,000 veterans are waiting for a claims decision — a process that takes nine months on average, but in some cases takes years.

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VA Secretary Eric Shinseki seems aware of the urgency of this problem and has set the highly ambitious goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015. While many in the veterans community are skeptical of this goal, there are a few key actions required to make achieving it more realistic.  

President Must Commit to Breaking the Backlog

The VA has been overpromising and underdelivering for decades under both Democrat and Republican administrations. And VA leaders have been pledging to eliminate the backlog since George W. Bush was president. Look where that’s gotten us. 

This lack of progress is not for a lack of resources. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time when Congress didn’t provide the department with everything it has asked for, be it funding, personnel or technology. Still, VA officials have failed to deliver the results they’ve been promising for years. 

Solving VA’s backlog problem once and for all requires a commitment from the only person with the power to ensure the VA lives up to its word: President Obama. Without a vow from the president to fix the backlog, the VA’s oft-cited 2015 deadline will likely be the latest in its string of broken backlog promises.

VA Must Be Honest With Congress about Capabilities

Talk to VA officials, and they’ll provide a litany of excuses for why the backlog exists before proclaiming the department is on track to solve the problem by 2015. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence to support that projection.

The fact is, despite historic levels of funding and employees, the department is losing ground or stagnating in every key measure it has asked that Congress use to evaluate its disability benefits claims processing performance. To put things in perspective, in 1997 the average VA claims worker processed 135 claims a year. In 2012, with nearly three times the field workers and budget it had in 1997, the department processed just over 73 claims per field worker per year. 

It’s well past time for the VA to have an honest conversation about its plan to eliminate the backlog and to tell Congress what the department needs to execute it. Making overly optimistic projections about when the VA can eliminate the backlog doesn’t help the department, and it doesn’t help our veterans.

Focus On Accountability, Stop Rewarding Failure

While the vast majority of its more than 300,000 employees and executives are dedicated and hard-working, there is a culture of complacency among some that is contributing to the backlog as well as a host of other serious problems plaguing the department. 

But the fact that some of the department’s employees and managers have stopped caring is merely a symptom of a larger problem: a pattern of rewarding failure. For example, top VA executives routinely collect sizeable “performance” bonuses despite negligible or even poor performance. 

In one outrageous case, the VA executive in charge of the nearly 60 offices that process disability benefits compensation claims collected almost $60,000 in bonuses while presiding over a near seven-fold increase in the backlog. Worse still, patient deaths apparently aren’t even enough to stop the VA from paying executives enormous bonuses, as we learned in late April, when a VA health official received a nearly $63,000 bonus after he had overseen a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System.

When employees see the VA rewarding executives year after year for failing to meet standards, they can’t help but become complacent. VA leaders should realize this and focus on holding employees and executives accountable — rather than paying them off — for mistakes. Organizational morale and performance will surely improve as a result.

Shinseki says he is confident the VA can break the backlog by 2015. I’m convinced this goal is unachievable without a commitment from Obama, an honest conversation about the VA’s capabilities and a renewed focus on accountability among department executives and employees. The legions of veterans waiting to hear from the department regarding their disability compensation claims shouldn’t have to wait until 2015 to find out which one of us is right.

Miller is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.