Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The VA's continued lack of accountability

Today the Sacremento Bee editorial board offers an editorial on the Department of Veterans Affairs that notes Chris Adams' "As VA struggles, delays and errors greet returning warriors" (McClatchy Newspapers).  Adams explored the continued decline in the rate of processing disability claims:

The VA has tried for years to reduce the waiting times, even as both younger and older veterans have sent claims skyrocketing to more than 1 million a year.
According to a McClatchy review of department data, the performance at regional offices deteriorated throughout 2012. The department’s long-term goals are that no disability claim is pending more than 125 days and that errors occur in just 2 percent of claims.
From fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2012, the VA's processing speed jumped from an average of 188 days complete a claim to 262 days, according to the VA. The error rate went down slightly, from 16 percent to 14 percent.

Read more here:

This was supposed to have been fixed.  Kat, Wally, Ava and I have sat through years and years of House Veterans Affaris Committee hearings and of Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearings where the promises are made then not delivered and VA officials take offense to anyone who dares to remind them of their previous promises.  And they think they can get with offering the same tired promises.  As the editorial board of the Sacremento Bee observes:

The VA's response to its continued struggles is like a broken record. The agency notes that it has completed a record 1 million claims each of the past three fiscal years. It says the new processing system was installed last year in 18 of the 56 regional offices and will reach the remainder this year. It maintains it's on track to reach the goal of finishing claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
In other words, keep waiting for things to get better.

Read more here:

In what world is this acceptable?  In what world is Eric Shinseki, VA Secretary, supposed to be exempt from accountability?

Let's drop back to a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on February 15th -- of last year.

Ranking Member Bob Filner: And I just want to ask a couple -- focus on a couple areas that I've been involved with over the years. One is the claims backlog.  In your budget presentation ou title it "Eliminate The Claims Backlog." But I don't see any real estimate or projection or anything of when you think you're going to do that but I still think that -- in the short run, at least -- to get this turned around your notion of -- I think you used the word "brute force" a few years ago, if I recall that.

Secretary Eric Shinseki: It was probably a poor choice of words.

Ranking Member Bob Filner: No, it's okay. It was good. Gives me something to shoot at, you know? I don't think it's going to work.  I just think all this stuff you have is good stuff but it's too big and, as you point out, there's all kind of factors making it bigger.  I still think you have to take some, I'll say, radical step in the short run -- whether it's to grant all the Agent Orange claims that have been submitted or have been there for X number of years or, as I've suggested at other times, all claims that have the medical information in it and have been submitted with the help of a Veterans Service Officer you accept subject to audit. That is, unless you take some real radical step to eliminate a million of them or 500,000 of them, you're never going to get there. It's going to always be there.  You don't want that as your legacy -- I don't think.  So -- Nor do we.  I think you're going to have to take some really strong steps in terms of accepting stuff that's been in the pipeline a long time, again, that has adequate -- by whatever definition -- documentation and help from professional support. Plus this incredible situation of Agent Orange where, as you know, not only have those claims increaded but we're talking about -- as you well know -- your comrades for thirty or more years that have been wrestling with this.  Let's give the Vietnam vets some peace. Let's give them a real welcome home. Let's grant those Agent Orange claims.  Let's get those -- whatever it is, 100,000 or 200,000  of our backlog -- just get them off the books.  I don't know if you want to comment on that but I still think you're never going to get there with -- All this is good stuff.  We've talked about it on many occasions.  But it's not going to fundamentally -- or at least in the short run change it around so you can get to a base  level of zero or whatever you want to be and move forward from there.

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Mr. Filner, I'll call on Secretary Hickey for the final details but we've pretty much worked through the Agent Orange -- the increase in Agent Orange claims. I think we're well down on the numbers. I'll rely on her statistic here.

The Secretary of the VA told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the Agent Orange claims were "pretty much worked through."  That was a lie.  Weeks later, the Committee would learn that and, on February 28th,  Filner would point out:

Ranking Member Bob Filner: We got several hundred thousand claims for Agent Orange in our backlog. How long have they been fighting it? Thirty, forty years. People get sicker fighting the bureaucracy than they did with the Agent Orange. So you know what we ought to do -- aside from greatly expanding eligibility to boots on the ground, to the blue waters, to the blue skies and Thailand and Cambodia and Laos and Guam? We ought to honor those Agent Orange claims today. You know, let's give people the peace that they deserve. Let's give you finally some closure here. And, you know, they're telling us, "It costs too much." I don't know if it's a billion dollars or two billion dollars. I don't care what it is frankly. You don't think we owe it to you? We owe it to you.

Disability claims, Agent Orange claims, it doesn't matter, the VA is failing and it's failing repeatedly while forever offering excuses and never demonstrating accountability. 

In the fall of 2009, Americans were shocked to learn that veterans attempting to attend college were not getting the payments guaranteed them by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that veterans were having to take out loans (and the government was reporting them to debt collectors) or risking being homeless.  The VA insisted this was being fixed.  It wasn't.  There were some veterans families that didn't get to have a Christmas specifically because as December 2009 wound down, they were still waiting for the checks they should have received from the VA back in August and September 2009.  In 2010, the VA repeatedly told Congress that the issue was solved.  It was a glitch.  And it had been fixed and it had been fine tuned and blah, blah, blah.

In yesterday's snapshot, we covered Thursday's House Veterans Subcomittee on Economic Opportunity hearings.  Veterans advocates appearing before the Subcommittee testified to what?

Some student veterans are homeless because VA still can't get the checks out in a timely manner.

Chair Bill Flores: To kind of go back to the original question, if you look at where we are now versus prior semesters, have you seen a change?  Sounds like you've got this cycle where at the beginning of each semester where your complaints are higher.  Do you -- Is the trend downward or what?  What do your constituents tells you?

Michael Dakduk:  I would definitely say that since the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the trend is downward.  I will acknowledge that.  But it's still an issue.  And it's a real issue at the beginning of terms.


Chair Bill Flores: Okay.


Michael Dakduk:  And I would just like to acknowledge one thing, Mr. Chairman, the issue is that because we can't see the status of our GI Bill claims and our housing allowance comes on the tail end of each month, we don't know if you're waiting six weeks or eight weeks to pay your bills.  Institutions of higher learning have been pretty supportive when it comes to supporting veterans with their tuitions and fees but landlords are not as supportive when it comes to paying your rent.


Chair Bill Flores: Ms. Hall, any comments?


Kim Hall: Absolutely.  The tuition and fee process is, as I stated earlier with the overpayment situation, is in a crisis mode -- it's what I'd say at this point.  Institutions have extended a courtesy out to allow veterans to continue attending school as we wait for the VA payments to arrive for tuition fees.  We have no way of knowing at the beginning of the term -- or even until we actually receive a payment -- of how much we're going to get for that student's tuition fees and oftentimes it results in underpayments and over payments and, by that time, the student is most definitely involved.  And if there's not a complaint, there should be at that point because the schools are trying to accommodate the VA's payments as they're coming and we're ending up
with all kinds of overpayments.


Chair Bill Flores: Okay, just kind of a one word answer: Better, worse or the same?


Kim Hall: You know, in terms of the tuition fees, it's definitely worse.  You know -- The students don't see it at the very begin because we're deferring out the tuition fees.


Chair Bill Flores: Okay.  Ms. Perez?  Better, worse, the same?


Hayleigh Perez:  Mr. Chairman, I would say it's the same.


Chair Bill Flores:  Okay.


Hayleigh Perez: The veterans that are reaching out to our organization, the ones who are suffering extreme delays  -- it's having huge detrimental effects on their personal lives and they're not able to be successful in their studies.

At what time do we see accountability?

Clearly, the White House isn't going to impose any accountability so Congress is going to have to do it.  That's going to mean members of the veterans committees in both house are going to have to put veterans first.  Do we need to make that simpler for US House Rep Corrinne Brown to understand?  She is the worst enabler of the VA.  She wasn't always that way.  When Bully Boy Bush occupied the White House, Brown felt the VA should be accountable.  Now that it's Barack in the White House, Brown makes excuses for them over and over. 

If she can't put veterans needs ahead of partisan desires, she needs to step down from the Committee. 

Last week, the VA demonstrated that they intended to spend another year lying to Congress and excusing their inability to meet the deadlines that they set for themselves.  The White House is clearly fine with that.  The only one who can protect veterans now and ensure that the VA serves them is Congress.  The committees have lost a lot of heavy hitters.   Those serving on the committees now better be veterans advocates and not enablers for the VA. 

Veterans deserve better.

The following community sites -- plus The Diane Rehm Show, Dissident Voice, Pacifica Evening News, C-SPAN,, Susan's On the Edge and Ms. magazine -- updated this morning and last night:

Finally, David Bacon's latest book is Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press) which won the CLR James Award. We'll close with this from Bacon's "Let's Stop Making Migration A Crime" (TruthOut):

We need an immigration policy based on human, civil and labor rights, which looks at the reasons why people come to the U.S., and how we can end the criminalization of their status and work. While proposals from Congress and the administration have started the debate over the need for change in our immigration policy, they are not only too limited and ignore the global nature of migration, but they will actually make the problem of criminalization much worse. We need a better alternative.

This alternative should start by looking at the roots of migration - the reasons why people come to the U.S. in the first place. Movement and migration is a human right. But we live in a world in which a lot of migration isn't voluntary, but is forced by poverty and so-called economic reforms.

Our trade policy, and the economic measures we impose on countries like Mexico, El Salvador or the Philippines make poverty worse. When people get poorer and their wages go down, it creates opportunities for U.S. corporate investment. This is what drives our trade policy. But the human cost is very high.

In El Salvador today, the U.S. Embassy is telling the government to sell off its water, hospitals, schools and highways to give U.S. investors a chance to make money. This policy is enabled by the Central American Free Trade Agreement, whose purpose was increasing opportunities in El Salvador for U.S. investors. It was imposed on the people of that country in the face of fierce popular opposition.

Alex Gomez, a leader of Salvadoran public sector unions, came to San Francisco in February to explain what the consequences of this latest free trade initiative will be. He says if these public resources are privatized, tens of thousands of workers will lose their jobs, and their unions will be destroyed. They will then have to leave the country to survive.

According to Gomez, four million have already left El Salvador. Two million have come to the US, not because they love it here, but because they can't survive any longer at home. These migrants come without papers, because there are no visas for two million people from this small country.

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