Friday, May 24, 2013

Another explosive investigative report from Aaron Glantz (Veterans issues)

In 2012, one of the few joys to be found in the VA's appearance before the House Veterans Affairs Committee was Bob Filner.  Over and over, the VA would show up (as they did in the Senate) with yet another lie, with yet another figure that made no sense.  And US House Rep Bob Filner, who had no patience with the Dept's constant lies, would let it rip.  He'd call out the nonsense and, as the inept Allison Hickey, the VA's Under Secretary for Benefits, can certainly attest, he'd make them tremble for every moment they appeared before the Committee.  Hickey was among the many who stammered and stuttered and fretted and, yes, almost dissolved into tears under Filner's questioning.  Bob's left Congress to become the Mayor of San Diego.  And the VA? It's just gotten worse. This week, Aaron Glantz (Center for Investigative Reporting) reports:

The Department of Veterans Affairs has systematically missed nearly all of its internal benchmarks for reducing a hulking backlog of benefits claims and has quietly backed away from repeated promises to give all veterans and family members speedier decisions by 2015.
Internal VA documents, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, show the agency processed 260,000 fewer claims than it thought it would during the past year and a half – falling 130,000 short in the 2012 fiscal year and another 130,000 short of its goal between October and March. 
The result: At a time when the number of veterans facing long waits was supposed to be going down, it instead went up.
On April 29, the VA began to qualify its promise, made repeatedly since 2009, that “all claims” would be processed within four months by 2015.

The numbers prove the VA has yet again deceived.

Grasp that.  And let's drop back to the April 18th snapshot for this exchange during the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on April 15th:

Ranking Member Richard Burr: Madam Secretary, the VA backlog reduction plan shows that in order to eliminate the backlog by 2015, VA will need to decide 1.2 million claims this year, 1.6 million claims next year, 1.9 million claims in 2015.  But VA's projecting in the budget submission that it will decide 335,000 fewer claims in 2013 and 2014.  So can the VA reach 2 million claims in 2015?  That would be a 92% increase in productivity over the 2012 level.

Allison Hickey:  So Senator Burr, I'm sorry, I don't exactly know your numbers but I'm happy to take your numbers and go look at them and come back to you and sit down and visit with you.  But I can tell you --

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  -- I'm pulling them right out of the Budget Reduction Plan which was submitted in January.  I got it January 25th in my office and the math would work out to eliminate the backlog in 2015, VA would need to decide 1.2 million claims this year, 1.6 million claims next year, and 1.9 million claims in 2015.  Now in the projections from the budget submission by the President, that says that over the next two years you will decide 335,000 less claims then what the backlog reduction plan said.  I'm trying to figure out, if 2015, you're certain on that, then that means that you have to process over 2 million claims in 2015.  Is that - is that how your math looks at it.

Allison Hickey:  Uh-uh, Sen-Senator Burr, I would love to come sit down and talk to you about that.  Those numbers are a little different to me than the numbers that we sent across.  And follow up in questions with your staff, I'm happy to do that with you.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Well in the budget submission, you do say that you will decide 335,000 fewer claims in 2013 and 2014, right?

Allison Hickey:  Uh, uh, Senator, the uh-uh, budget submission --

[At that point the VA's Robert Petzel dropped his head and began rubbing his bald scalp in what appeared to be frustration or embarrassment.]

Allison Hickey:  -- is slightly different than the plan that you received in January that was based on some assumptions made last fall.  Uhm, and there has been some differences in terms of what we have seen in the actuals that have been submitted to us.  We've seen a significant drop -- well, not significant -- Uh, uh.  That's not a good word.  We've seen a drop in the number of claims that have been submitted to us of late so we have adjusted the budget based on those issues.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Okay.  Currently, nearly 70% of the claims have been backlogged meaning that they've been waiting for a decision for more than 125 days.  The strategic plan that you submitted less than three months ago predicted that the backlog plan would be reduced to 68% in 2013 and 57% in 2014.  But according to the budget submission, you now expect no more than 40% of the claims to be backlogged during either of these two years.  So in revising these projections, what metrics did you look at and what did they -- how did -- what did they show you?

Allison Hickey:  Sena-Senator, I looked at the, uh, actual submission of receipt claims that we have received from our veterans over the last five months and each month they have been lower than our expected volume.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  So the math works out to where you would have only a 40% backlog situation in five months?

Allison Hickey:  Uh, no, Senator.  And I don't think -- You all would throw me out of here if I said that would happen.   Uh, uh, it's not where we are.  We are, uh, uh, about at 69% of, uh, our claims right now that are older than 125 days. We're working every single day to drive that number south.  We're doing it by focus on our people process technology solutions and as far as we can pushing up our productivity by our folks.  I can tell you today that my raters are 17%  more effective and a higher productivity than they were prior to us moving into this transition plan --

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  General Hickey, last year you testified, or, excuse me, the Secretary testified, that during 2013, the backlog would be reduced from 60% to 40% and that would -- and I quote -- "demonstrate that we are on the right path." At the time, did you anticipate that the backlog would stay above 65% for the first half of the Fiscal Year or that it would be 70% in April?

Allison Hickey:  So-so, Senator, we do have, uh, uhm, uh, some APG guidance in our annual guidance planning that we communicate with to our federal government partners and, uh, the -- they are usually aspirational in nature. When we see a change or a difference, as the Secretary has pointed out in terms of the workload increase that we saw due to Agent Orange, the increased claims associated with PTSD and the like, we did note that we would probably not be able to meet that 40% APG guidance but the thought was you leave your stretch goal out there so that you keep working hard to get to it.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Well, here would be a simple question.  Is the strategic plan that you sent to Congress aspirational?

Allison Hickey:  So, uh, Senator Burr, I grew up as a strategic planner for, uh, in the military for quite a while and I know that every strategic plan I've built over the years for the United States Air Force a plan.  And plans are always, you know, in-in contact.  You know, they change and, uh, adjust for reality and actuals.  So we have and we will continue to improve upon that plan as it continues.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  But when you developed that plan was it developed to be aspirational or was it developed to give us an accurate blue print of how VA perceived the timeline would move on disability backlogs.

Allison Hickey:  Uh, well, uh --

At that point VA Secretary Eric Shinseki jumps in to try to smooth things over.  Apparently, that's what he thinks his job is.  To smooth over his employees' discomfort.  He certainly doesn't think his job is being honest with Congress. He demonstrated that during his first year on the job.  October 14, 2009, he appeared before the House Veterans Affairs Committee during the scandal where veterans whose college semesters had started in mid-August or September still weren't getting their checks from the GI Bill -- the tuition, the housing.  They were having to take out loans, they were having to ask landlords to be patient, as this scandal continued -- and it did continue, despite Shinseki telling Congress that they were on it and solving it -- some veterans had to push back Christmas until January.  Now that's not ideal but grown ups can handle things like that, right?  Thing is, when you're talking to reporters -- as many veterans did -- about having to push back Christmas, you're not talking about you and another adult waiting, you're talking about your kids waiting.  And it never should have happened.

But October 14, 2009, in the midst of the scandal, Shinseki appears before Congress and declares:

A plan was written, very quickly put together, uh, very short timelines. I'm looking at the certificates of eligibility uh being processed on 1 May and enrollments 6 July, checks having to flow through August. A very compressed time frame. And in order to do that, we essentially began as I arrived in January, uh, putting together the plan -- reviewing the plan that was there and trying to validate it. I'll be frank, when I arrived, uh, there were a number of people telling me this was simply not executable. It wasn't going to happen. Three August was going to be here before we could have everything in place. Uh, to the credit of the folks in uh VA, I, uh, I consulted an outside consultant, brought in an independent view, same kind of assessment. 'Unless you do some big things here, this is not possible.' To the credit of the folks, the good folks in VBA, they took it on and they went at it hard. We hired 530 people to do this and had to train them. We had a manual system that was computer assisted. Not very helpful but that's what they inherited. And we realized in about May that the 530 were probably a little short so we went and hired 230 more people. So in excess of 700 people were trained to use the tools that were coming together even as certificates were being executed. Uhm, we were short on the assumption of how many people it would take.

In the midst of this scandal, Eric Shinseki reveals to Congress that in January 2009, he was told that plan wasn't executable.  He then brought someone in to do an assessment and they told him the same thing.  Though he knew this in January of 2009, he failed to inform Congress.  Not only he did fail to inform them, every VA witness appearing before Congress in the months leading up to the scandal swore that things were on track.  They weren't.

Congress was lied to repeatedly.  Not unlike with the outrage over the IRS.  There was no accountability for this.  Eric Shineski and his family had their Christmas on time.

This was not minor. Go visit VA Mortgage post on the GI Bill and read through the comments and find stories like these:

Well…Just got some bad news. I finally spoke with a claims supervisor today (they received my updated enrollment and certification with the yellow ribbon program on Aug, 7th 2009) and was told that I will not probably see me back pay until the third week of October now! I am so broke and about to be evicted out of my apartment! But it’s not the VA’s problem, (according to them). So I propose that we get together a group of Vets and do an organized protest in DC? At least we would get press coverage!! Hope everybody makes it through this horrible experience and just remember, we are only a number to the VA and our sacrifices for our country mean nothing to a for profit business!

I can’t believe this crap! First, I had to wait “6-8″ weeks for my certificate of elgibility then when I got it I had to fax it to my school and then wait ANOTHER “4″ weeks for it to process. Now I get a letter in the mail that says its ALL been approved. Hey thats great, but where’s the BAH? I’m already a month and a half into my first year of college and I (just like you all) have car bills, cell phone bills etc. I mean, yeah getting a job is great and all but I don’t know about you…Its kinda hard to come from 4 years of Marine Corps artillery to Psychology, Philosophy, Computer Science, Pre- calc etc. It would be nice to at least have a month or two off so that I could spend my time studying so that I don’t flunk out (and forfeit the GI BILL)without worrying about the gas money I need for my ONE hour commute to school or what i’m gonna do when the lights go out.

I am a veteran who yet to receive a payment. I submitted an application for a training that I had to pay out of pocket (5 grand) in June 2009 and I was suppose to receive my payment on October 23, 2009. I had called periodically every week from time of training in August. I called on October 20, 2009 and was informed that my application had been lost and it would be another two weeks before they would even look at the request to search for it. My wife and I are expecting and living with my in-laws and have 500 dollars to our name, car payments and no money….We need a miracle!!!! Thanks to the lack of caring on the government side….we are hurting to keep our heads above water!!!!


Yeah… so my husband submitted for his eligibility for July 3. We didn’t even get the eligibility form until mid-September. My husband brought it immediately to the school the same day. We got a letter from the school 2 days later that the authorization that he IS a student was processed and sent BACK to the VA. We went October 5 to get the $3000 from our regional office (a 4 hour drive each way). Now here it is… November 5… and we still have not seen so much as a PENNY from the original claim. His semester ends in approx. 5 weeks and we haven’t seen anything. We’re living on my paycheck alone…and drowning fast. Our 4 year old child has lived for 2 1/2 months in a state 6 hours away, with his grandparents, because we cannot afford daycare for me to work and my husband to go to school. We missed Halloween with him. And since we have no one to call and no paperwork or information at ALL that our claim is even being processed, we don’t forsee having him home for Thanksgiving either. Why can’t they give us a number, an email address, or SOMETHING? We had to wait for 10 weeks already just to get the eligibility. Do we also have to wait 10 MORE weeks to get a paycheck? 20 total weeks to get this done? And if that’s the case, why didn’t they let us know this BEFORE HAND? Will they pay us the back pay that they owe us when it’s processed or wait until the first of the month? (Yes, even after subtracting the $3000 we got, they still owe us well over $1000 in back pay.) Will we EVER get any money and be able to bring our baby home? We are given NO information at all and it’s not like we’re 18 year old kids who have no bills and no family who are merely having a problem trying to pay for gas or can’t go out with our friends. We cannot pay our bills, and we cannot have our own child live with us… because the VA will not process our payment. We already submitted one part, just to wait and wait and wait and wait for part #2 to come about. Do they care? Probably not. Because it doesn’t matter how long it takes US to get paid and take care of our kid… the politicians already patted themselves on the back and got their nice big fat paycheck. Why don’t THEY pay for daycare for me so I can get my child back home?

Wow! I didn’t realize the problem was as widespread as it is until I began researching post 911 GI Bill issues today. Like many of you, I transferred from the Montgomery in July and my school was paid by mid semester. However, it’s the week of Christmas, fall semester’s over, and still not a dime or glimmer of hope. Now here’s the kicker: My claim has been in hardship for well over a month, including several weeks in the wrong que (nice work VA-Atlanta). Three weeks ago I finally pleaded my way into a phone rep actually talking to a supervisor and my file was placed in the correct hardship que. Three weeks later, multiple discussions and empty promisses of my claim being authorized for payment within 24 hours, and I’ve hit the end of my rope. While all the very competent VA claims processors are getting christmas presents later this week, I’m getting forclosure notices on my mortgage and electricity cut-off dates from my utilities company. Not to mention that my credit is now irreversibly damaged. It seems there is nothing we can do but sit and watch as everything we’re working for deteriorates in front of our eyes. Is anyone else still waiting for payment now that the fall semester is over and gone?
 That's just a few stories from a very small number of the large group that suffered.  And they never needed to suffer.  You'll also see, in early September, veterans blaming their colleges.  Why?

Because when the scandal first emerged, the VA publicly lied.  They said it was the fault of Congress.  And they had helpers helping them lie.  Corinne Brown in the House, on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, yacked away about how she was watching MSNBC in the middle of the morning at 3:00 am and saw that these colleges were the reason.  Oh, please, buy a clue and a wig that fits.

After colleges pushed back -- as they should have -- the VA was finally forced to admit that the problem was their fault.  So not only did the VA deceive Congress -- initially, they hoped to deceive the American people and blame the problem on colleges.

Shinseki could have and should have informed Congress immediately when he became aware of the problem.  Instead the VA said nothing and veterans suffered for months and months and months.  And there was no accountability.  Call for his resignation and you're pulling wings off butterflies.  Demand competency and suddenly you're making an unreasonable request -- like the VA Secretary be able to perform open heart surgery.
No, people just want the VA Secretary to do the job expected.
But that is apparently expecting too much.
Today the San Jose Mercury News editorial board notes Aaron Glantz's latest report on the VA and the backlog.  Good for them, I'm not being sarcastic.  But so what.  I was asked about a news release from the House Veterans Affairs Committee?  I actually didn't see it yesterday.  We'll include it in full at the end.  This is the opening:
 Today, Chairman Jeff Miller (FL-01) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (CA-23) introduced legislation that would establish an independent task force or commission to analyze VA’s disability benefits claims processing system. The task force would be charged with examining the root causes of VA’s backlog and providing solutions for ending it by 2015.
 Good for them but so what?

Nothing's changing.  All the editorial boards in the world, all the members of Congress and Aaron Glantz can all bust their asses moving heaven and earth to sound the alarms.  But it doesn't mean one damn thing because there is no accountability at present at the VA.  There's excuses, one layer of excuses on top of another.  Excuses for the excuses.

There is no accountability.  There has been none.  And that's why it doesn't matter.

In 2012, as Allison Hickey was telling one of her many rosy lies about the perfect day in the future when the backlog wasn't a problem, Bob Filner interrupted to point out that she would be out of her position by then and collecting her benefits and someone else would be sitting in front of them offering more excuses.

After the hearing, speaking with two reporters I knew, I was surprised that they felt Bob was "harsh" and "overly harsh."  First off, it gave you a story, conflict is a story and you were there to report on the hearing, so I'd assume you'd be grateful for that.  Second off, by the time I spoke to them, I'd already spoken to several veterans I knew at the hearing.  They had nothing but praise for Bob Filner, they wished more of members of Congress would "get tough" with the VA.

Tuesday we covered a House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing.  This was an exchange between the Subcommittee Chair and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of Ameirca's Alex Nicholson.

Subcommittee Chair Dan Benishek:  How do we hold the VA accountable?  How do we get those people to actually produce?  Mr. Nicholson, do you have any other ideas there?


[IAVA's Alex Nicholson]: I would just add, Mr. Chairman, that I think we are on the same page in terms of solutions that would actually have teeth to them.  You know, I think whether it's public safety issues, IG recommendations, following through on reducing the backlog, it doesn't sort of matter what issue you look at, the VA keeps promising us progress year after year and, you know, we-we see backlogs in not only disability claims issues but, like you mentioned earlier, in following through on all these outstanding IG recommendations.  So something that would add some teeth to the accountability factor I think would certainly be welcomed by us.  You know, we hear from our members consistently, year after year -- we do an annual survey of our membership which is one of the largest that's done independently of Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans.  And we consistently hear that while veterans are satisfied with the care they receive, they continue to be dissatisfied overall with the VA itself.  [. . .]  I would say from our perspective, solutions you mentioned with teeth would certainly be welcome and I think it's certainly high time that we start adding teeth into these type of bills.
 Apologies to Alex Nicholson, I did not realize his name got left out.  I'll note that in today's snapshot.  But I mean what do you say to Alex or IAVA at this point?  "It'll be fixed!"  At what point do you expect people to still believe you after years of lying to them?

I have no idea.  And I'm sorry to point it out again but a seamless transition from DoD to VA via an electronic health record was one of the things that the VA was pointing to, back in 2005, that would allow the VA to reduce the backlog.  And they've factored it into their answers for the last years.  To have a seamless transition, you need to first decided which computer system you're going to use and then, based on that, design the electronic record. 

In January 2009, Eric Shinseki became VA Secretary and he was to work with Robert Gates (then-Secretary of Defense) on this issue.  This year, he finally slipped into a VA hearing that they still haven't figured out which system to use.  Five years on the job and there's still on step one.  He tried to blame it on Gates and on Leon Panetta and on Chuck Hagel (being new on the last).  No.  Gates and Panetta have left.  It's not their responsibility.  It's Shinseki's and it should have been decided a long time ago.  (I've noted before that Panetta told Shinseki to go with the system he wanted -- Shinseki want's VA's system and not DoD's.  Panetta was fine with that and thought the issue was resolved but he stepped down.  I've also spoken to two people who worked under Robert Gates -- I don't know Gates, I do know Leon -- and they both said Gates left with the understanding that the decision was made and that he'd told Shinseki to use the VA system.)  There is no accountability.  And there is no leadership because when Shinseki declared this year that step one of the seamless transition still hadn't been decided, Barack Obama should have immediately called Shinseki and Chuck Hagel into the office and said, "Here's which we're using.  The matter is now decided.  Get to work on the electronic record."  (Chuck Hagel is brand news as Secretary of Defense.  That's not my backing up Shinseki's excuse.  This matter should have been settled before Hagel got on the job.  Equally true, Shinseki's told two different stories to Congress -- one for the House, one for the Senate -- about his 'talk' or 'talks' with Hagel about this issue.)

(Update: Added a half hour after this went up.  A friend at DoD phoned to say Hagel has taken the lead on this issue of one computer system for the seamless transition record and, this week, put a bid in on a system to use.  He was very clear that Hagel had to take the lead and had to push and push to get the ball rolling.  I'm not a fan of Chuck Hagel, as is established here.  But good for him and thank you to ____ for calling to  pass that on.)

Memorial Day weekend is kicking off.  CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft will be hosting a one hour special airing on CBS News Radio over the weekend (and streaming here) about Post-Traumatic Stress entitled "Combat Stress: Finding the Way Home."

 Now here's yesterday's press release from the House Veterans Affairs Committee:

Miller, McCarthy Introduce VA Backlog Task Force Bill

May 23, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Chairman Jeff Miller (FL-01) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (CA-23) introduced legislation that would establish an independent task force or commission to analyze VA’s disability benefits claims processing system. The task force would be charged with examining the root causes of VA’s backlog and providing solutions for ending it by 2015.
After decades of mismanagement, VA 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. VA leaders have repeatedly pledged to end the backlog by 2015, but many in the veterans community are skeptical the department is on track to meet that goal.
Under the bill, the task force would provide recommendations for improving VA’s claims processing operations within 60 days of its first meeting and continually help the department refine its claims processing efforts until VA’s backlog is eliminated.  
Task force members would be appointed by members of Congress and the Obama administration and would include a delegate from VA. The bill would also require task force members to solicit input from representatives from the veterans service organization community and private-sector leaders in fields such as claims processing, logistics, electronic records and product tracking.
“Government bureaucrats under both Republican and Democrat administrations created the backlog, so it’s only natural to solicit outside help from the private sector and the VSO community in working toward a solution. By creating a task force of private industry leaders, VA and VSO officials, we hope to establish a revised evidenced-based process that will help VA break its claims backlog once and for all in 2015, just as department leaders have promised.” Miller said.

“The entire country is counting on VA to end the backlog by 2015, and Congress is committed to holding the department accountable until they achieve that goal. Our veterans deserve the care they earned while protecting and defending our country, and continued failure by the VA cannot and will not be tolerated.” McCarthy said.

"As Memorial Day approaches, it's clear that there is no roadmap from the White House to bring the VA backlog to zero. Veterans need a comprehensive, inter-agency approach to solve the disgraceful backlog. IAVA strongly supports Chairman Miller's bill to proactively establish just such a coordinated effort to get the VA the help it needs on the backlog and to bring outside players to the table to assist in that effort. The enormous success of the roundtable with private industry experts convened by the Chairman last week is an example how the VA can greatly benefit from an expansion of this approach," said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

The e-mail address for this site is

iraq iraq iraq iraq iraq iraq