There is nearly universal agreement that too many American veterans are made to languish unnecessarily under the current Department of Veterans Affairs claims backlog. For many months, often years, our servicemen and women patiently wait to receive their hard-earned benefits, held up by a notoriously burdensome and antiquated government bureaucracy, which has only worsened as more than 2.5 million troops return from overseas service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some critics have even called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. While justified in their outrage, their demands for the Secretary’s job are wrongheaded and would only make matters worse.
First, consider that many improvements have already been made. Knowing the backlog would rise, Shinseki had the leadership and moral courage to increase access for more veterans. His righteous decisions on presumptive conditions for Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, PTSD and other issues ensured more than a million new veterans would receive the care and benefits they earned.
Second, Shinseki has a vision to end the backlog, a new electronic claims system. He has boldly staked his professional reputation and his career on a firm deadline for success by 2015. Few Washington officials, elected, appointed or otherwise, would so courageously set their objectives in stone, leaving no path for egress should they fail, yet the VA Secretary has done just that. He is committed.
Third, ask who would replace Secretary Shinseki if he were removed in disgrace. Five men have served as VA secretary since 9/11, an astounding turnover that, in and of itself, suggests that part of the problem at VA may be a lack of continuity among its senior leadership. How many months, or even years, would a new VA secretary require to fully gain control of the second largest U.S. government department behind the Department of Defense? Shinseki’s removal would certainly be a blow to all his initiatives, including his vision for ending the backlog by 2015.
Finally, consider that on June 12, VA Compensation Service Director Thomas Murphy declared, “We are at a tipping point,” as the total number of pending claims dropped by 44,000 in the previous 45 days. Backlogged claims, those pending more than 125 days, dropped by 74,000 in the same period, as reported by the Military Times’ Rick Maze. This trend indicates the Secretary’s goal of ending the backlog by 2015 is, in fact, attainable.
Clearly, the answer to the VA backlog isn’t to cut its leadership at the knees and end the career of the most capable man to take VA’s helm in years, a man House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (Fla.), a Republican, called “an honorable, trustworthy gentleman.” Not one reputable veterans service organization has advocated such a shortsighted and ill-advised action. Rather, allow this proven leader with both the talent and wherewithal to effectively transform VA to realize his well-articulated vision. Secretary Shinseki has a plan and those in the know, including AMVETS’ leadership, believe he will successfully navigate VA through this storm, and chart a course that will serve America’s veterans for generations to come.