There has been a great deal of press coverage in recent weeks about the huge backlog of veterans waiting for resolution of their benefit claims. Seeking someone to take the blame, Joe Klein of Time magazine called for President Obama to fire Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Veterans Administration. A new Secretary won't solve anything. Eric Shinseki is one of the best, most dedicated men we've ever had in that position. Shinseki's chief of staff, John Gingrich recently resigned leaving a gaping hole in the senior staff at VA. A retired general officer himself, Gingrich devoted four years of his life to be the engine of the VA, leaving Shinseki free to be the face of the organization. We should be applauding these men, not vilifying them.
Klein pats himself on the back for getting the support of Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America and fails to acknowledge that every other veterans service organization (VSO) threw their support behind the Secretary. Klein later suggested the reason is their inclination to favor Vietnam and Korean vets, not a very plausible explanation given that the currently returning vets represent the future of those groups. A more likely scenario is that Paul Reickhoff of IAVA is struggling to make his organization relevant and has found a kindred spirit in Joe Klein; scratching each other's backs, neither looking for a solution, both looking for recognition. All too often the media buys into pointless finger pointing contests. They seek controversy, not solutions.
Changes in the VA claims processing systems have been slow to make a difference, there's no denying it. The VA is not without fault. Perhaps, they could have done a better job of preparing for the massive increase in claims. No, certainly they could have done a better job. But how many of us really understand what's involved in a project like that? Craig Newmark understands, and recently wrote an insightful piece about what the VA faces in resolving the data side of the backlog. Reading it should help in understanding that it's not a problem being swept under the carpet, they're working hard to update the systems.
The backlog didn't grow gradually; it exploded halfway through the past decade of war. VSOs have been serving veterans for a long time. Among the things they provide to their members is help in processing disability claims. The VSOs, like VFW, The American Legion, and DAV plus more than 30 others are recognized by the VA as being authorized to represent veterans in the claims process. These services are often a membership draw for these groups and, to an extent; they compete for members on the basis of their ability to successfully get claims approved. It's worth pointing out that IAVA is not on that list which leaves them twisting in the wind in the struggle to be on the radar of returning vets.
The advent of war in Iraq and Afghanistan changed the landscape. New vets entered the system in record numbers. Could the VA have anticipated the surge in claims? Perhaps, but 40% of the current backlog represents appeals of prior claims, and for the first time during wartime, the VA recognizes PTSD as a valid source of disability; it's not easy to substantiate these "hidden wounds of war," and even harder to assess their impact. By all accounts, the VA continues to do an excellent job in providing medical help to vets; the backlog primarily involves the resolution of disability claims, not medical. They can do better and I believe they will.