Government Affairs Committee Report, May/June 2013
The Intractable Backlog
BY RIC DAVIDGE, CHAIR, AND GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS STAFF
This all seems very familiar. Vietnam veterans remember only too well the backlog of claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many died before their disability claims were completed. It’s been nearly fifty years; we still face a backlog of 900,000 claims.
Although there are many reasons for these delays, including the transition from paper to digital, the larger problem is what is known as the VA Culture. Veterans and VSOs know this only too well. It’s a function of corporate attitude and an inability of systemic management to fix things. How much has been spent on fixing this problem over the past forty years? Congress needs to report this number.
The Compensation & Pension backlog has been a crisis for at least sixteen years. In all that time there have been officials advancing magic solutions to fix the problem. There have been many General Accountability Office Reports, Inspector General Reports, after-reports, and too many hearings to enumerate. Three Presidents, six Secretaries of Veterans Affairs, and two Acting Secretaries of Veterans Affairs have come and gone. And yet the backlog persists and grows at an increasingly rapid rate.
In the latest hearing, held by the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, VVA testified about the seemingly intractable nature of the backlog. The hearing can be viewed online.
While the hearing focused on temporary 100 percent disability errors, the underlying cause was the inability of VA regional office supervisors to supervise full use of the systems that exist to prevent overpayments and underpayments of veterans’ compensation. Many of these problems could be avoided if all or most of these claims were filed electronically.
VVA’s recommendation to the VA was to automate everything it can, thereby freeing staff to do tasks that only human beings can do.
Perhaps the most important VVA recommendation, which came out of Alaska, was to program all systems at the VA to send each veteran a monthly Statement of Account telling the veteran how much he or she received via direct deposit, andif there were different amounts for different paymentswhat it was for. This is particularly important for those receiving payments under the 21st Century GI Bill, but it is also important for many others, including those receiving temporary 100 percent disability and those who are not receiving the funds they should.
The only way to do this efficiently is via the VA’s e-Benefits system, which is a secure portal. Everyone has access to this portal, and statements would be efficient and reduce many problems, such as overpayments.
Another recommendation from this committee was to create a pilot, VSO+, in which accredited veteran service officers take additional training to establish an excellent performance level of claim submissions. If the VA received a claim signed by a VSO+ it would be approved as submitted, and an occasional audit would be done on VSO+ submissions as quality control.
VVA is encouraged that the Veterans Benefits Administration is moving beyond negative management techniques when dealing with poorly performing offices. However, much more needs to be done, such as joint sessions between veterans service organizations, VA staff, and state and county veterans’ staff. This has been recommended by VVA and others repeatedly for eight years, but has yet to materialize.
Lastly, VA management needs to take ownership of the problems and stop blaming the workers, or their union, or the IT people, or general counsel, or veterans, or the dog that ate my homework. The VA has a cultural problem that is critical to any significant change in its behavior as an organization.
VVA will continue to press top VBA management to hold middle managers at the national and regional office level accountable. There are more than a few who need to depart the VAnot be transferred or hidden somewhere else in the vast bureaucracy, but fired. We are speaking of those who deliberately follow their own lights rather than existing regulations. They are deliberately breaking the law and need to be fired, period.
Those who have committed the same errors over and over again, they also need to be held more accountable. The VA generally should be stingier with bonuses and step raises until performance warrants it. Unless better performance by management and employees is included in all performance reviews, nothing will change.
The Deputy Secretary, the VA Chief of Staff, and the Deputy Undersecretary for Benefits have all left. So, under current leadership, that process has begun. It will be a long road to change this corporate culture in all VA regional offices and medical facilities, but it would appear that the process has finally begun.
While VVA, AVVA, and others work with our friends on Capitol Hill to seek care for sick children and grandchildren, we need to look at what has happened to those children with spina bifida associated with their mothers’ or fathers’ service in Southeast Asia. And we need to take a hard look at the almost one thousand children that the VA is supposed to provide with comprehensive care. That care is not so comprehensive for many of the suffering innocents.
VVA has urged Congress to request a full investigation by the General Accountability Office on what this office has and has not been providing to these children since the law was enacted in 1997 and strengthened in 2008. The need for a full range of care for these eligible victims needs to be provided now, not sometime in the future. This is critical care for young people like Honey Sue Newby (photo). This should not be hard for the VA to accomplish, but it must be done and done well.
Just about everyone has met a fraud, an imposter, a poseur, a wannabean individual who claims to have been what he was not. He or she will claim to have served on the front lines of danger, often as a Ranger, Green Beret, SEAL, or LRRP.
There are two distinct types of frauds: the troop who served honorably and well as a cook in Kentucky or a clerk in Korea who seeks to enhance his military resume to impress his friends and his kids; and the outright liar who never served, who seeks status and material benefits from the charade he perpetrates.
Enhancing a mundane military resume is a forgivable foible. But not having served and attempting to take personal gain from the pain of others is unequivocally wrong. Congress attempted to right this wrong when it passed the Stolen Valor Act in 2005, strongly supported by VVA. The Stolen Valor Act of 2012, sponsored by Vietnam War veteran Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), passed the Senate as an amendment to the 2013 defense authorization bill.
Webb’s proposal makes it a federal crime to make a false claim about having served in the military or having received a military decoration if the object of the lie is personal gain. This is the key termpersonal gainwhich was missing from the original law.
Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), who introduced similar legislation in the House in the last session of Congress, has introduced tougher legislation in the current session. It is companion legislation to a bill cosponsored by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Heck’s bill is H.R. 258; it has 120 cosponsors. The Tester-Heller bill is S. 210.
Perhaps the best antidote for a fraud or a wannabe is public humiliation and ostracism. However, in cases in which an imposter has managed to rip off the system for thousands of dollars or a variety of benefits, he or she should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. That is why these bills, along with the amendment to the 2013 defense authorization bill, are critically important.
Several years ago, a former Marine who was wounded in Vietnam told us about a young man who had approached him. “Boy, I wish I had one of those,” the youth said, pointing to his Purple Heart. To which the Marine replied: “And I wish I could give it to you, with all the pain that comes with it.”
Agent Orange corn won’t be coming to a field near youthis year. But its maker, Dow AgriSciences, is focusing on the 2014 planting season.
Dow’s Enlist corn, soy, and cottonall awaiting deregulation by the U.S. Department of Agricultureare genetically engineered to be immune to the biotech giant’s Enlist herbicide. Enlist combines the weed-killers 2,4-D (a key ingredient in Agent Orange) and glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup).
Studies have linked 2,4-D exposure to cancer, lowered sperm counts, liver toxicity, and Parkinson’s disease. Lab studies have shown that 2,4-D causes endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, neurotoxicity, and immunosuppression. For Vietnam veterans, as well as their children and grandchildren, this has the potential to be another massive exposure to these dangerous chemical toxins.
Last year advocacy groups and medical and health professionals lobbed more than 400,000 complaints about Agent Orange corn at Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The National Resources Defense Council has sued the Environmental Protection Agency in federal court over the use of 2,4-D in weed killers and other lawn products.
Who will win? Clearly, Dow believes it will. The biotech bully already is gearing up for the 2014 planting season by opening five new technology centers in the Midwest and South to train farmers on how to plant Agent Orange corn and to help set up more than one hundred field plots at seed company and retail locations.
Are burn pit smoke toxins the Agent Orange of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? While we may never know for sure, the new Burn Pit Registry, signed into law by President Obama as part of a wider veterans’ bill, should go a long way toward assembling data about the health conditions that afflict the women and men who have been exposed to burn pit smoke during their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Senate sponsor of the bill was Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and the main House sponsor was former Rep. Todd Akin, (R-Mo.), who told a reporter that “it appeared that there was a patternthat people exposed to burn pit smoke or gases were developing some strange medical complications.”
The Burn Pit Registry, he said, would help the VA determine if a correlation exists between exposure to the burn pit fumes and the development of certain health problems. “If there are symptoms that develop over a period of time and if you catch them early enough,” Akin said, “it may result in saving somebody’s life or being able to better treat a particular condition.”
The VA has posted a message on its burn pits military exposures webpage saying that it will announce how veterans can sign up once the registry is established. “The new registry will enhance the VA’s ability to monitor the effects of exposure and keep veterans informed about studies and treatments,” the VA said, adding that it also is conducting studies on possible health effects.
However, there are other registries that allow physicians and researchers to follow the health of those who may have been exposed to potentially dangerous toxins or other harmful substances or diseases. The VA Hepatitis C Registry is such an existing registry.
And then there is the infamous VA Agent Orange Registry that is really nothing more than a mailing list. The Gulf War Registry is similarly useless. There is no special protocol for the cursory exams when veterans are placed on these mailing lists.
The veterans of Afghanistan and of Iraq and other battlefields deserve a real registry, not the junk given to their fathers and uncles who served in Vietnam. Of course, the VA will not do the right thing on this issue unless it is made to do so by congressional oversight and the vigilance of the organized veteran community and the press.
According to an Associated Press report, many more Marines and their relatives could be eligible for compensation for illnesses now that a federal agency has determined that the water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated four years earlier than previously thought.
In a letter to Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, Christopher J. Portier, director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said a preliminary computer modeling report shows that drinking water in the residential Hadnot Point area contained volatile organic compounds that exceeded maximum contaminant levels and was unsafe for human consumption as far back as August 1953. President Obama signed a law last year granting health care and screening to Marines and their dependents who lived on the base between 1957 and 1987.
Health officials believe as many as one million people may have been exposed to the tainted water. It’s not clear how many Marines and family members will be affected by the expansion of the time line.
Perhaps no other issue ignites passions like the issue of certification and verification of ownership and control of Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) by the VA’s Center for Veterans Enterprise. Prior to the start of a systematic review of all SDVOSBs who wish to register at VetBiz.gov there were more than 17,000 businesses in the database. Today there are only about 5,200. The VA has admitted that of those that were rejected (not verified), more than 98 percent are legitimate SDVOSBs. What that means to us is that 12,000 service-disabled veteran business owners have walked away from doing business with the VA.
Who is the loser? The veteran who receives service and the taxpayer who cannot benefit from the competition for the lowest price and the best product. Again, this is a corporate culture problem that senior management must fix.
Many in the veterans small business community are incensed that no matter what we have said or done, no matter how we have tried to help, no matter what Congress has done, the VA has remained in a mode of continuing what one federal court decision recently called “arbitrary and capricious decisions” and behaviors.
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