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May 18, 2013

Criticism of Veterans Affairs Secretary Mounts Over Backlog in Claims


The 30-second Web video has the edgy quality of a campaign-season attack ad, including ominous music, grainy photos and a closing demand: “It’s time for new leadership.”

But the target is not an elected official, or a politician at all. It is President Obama’s secretary of veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, the man being held accountable for his overwhelmed agency’s problems.

And for one problem in particular: “the backlog,” the huge and probably still growing inventory of claims for disability compensation filed by wounded or ill veterans. As of Monday, just under 600,000 claims qualified as backlogged, meaning they had been pending for over 125 days.

Though the numbers have grown, delays in processing disability claims are nothing new, and neither are complaints about the backlog. Just last year, some veterans advocates tried to make the backlog a presidential campaign issue. They failed. But this year, something changed: the criticism grew louder and perhaps more partisan, and began reaching a wider audience.

A new conservative-leaning nonprofit organization, Concerned Veterans for America, produced the Web video calling for Mr. Shinseki’s resignation and is sponsoring a similar online petition, which has been signed by more than 9,000 people. Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and Marine Corps veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has joined the call.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest organization representing the new generation of veterans, has also made the backlog the focus of aggressive lobbying in Washington, writing a letter signed by 67 senators that urges Mr. Obama to “take direct action” to resolve the problem. The group has stopped short, however, of calling for Mr. Shinseki’s resignation.

And perhaps most embarrassing for the administration, the backlog has become a repeated topic of outraged ridicule on “The Daily Show,” on which the host, Jon Stewart, has skewered the paper-choked bureaucracy in a series titled “The Red Tape Diaries.”

Describing Mr. Shinseki’s promise to end the backlog in two years, Mr. Stewart — reflecting the sentiment of many veterans — sarcastically observed in one segment: “In only two more years, they are hoping to have you wait only four more months.”

Mr. Shinseki, a former four-star general and Army chief of staff, remains deeply respected in Congress and, for the moment, secure in his job. The White House has expressed support for him, as have many mainline veterans organizations, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Even the Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, called him “an honorable, trustworthy gentleman” in an interview. But Mr. Miller raised questions about the secretary’s staff, calling for the firing of Allison A. Hickey, the under secretary who oversees disability compensation.

The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Bernard Sanders, an independent of Vermont, also praises Mr. Shinseki for doing something rare in Washington: setting a deadline, in this case to end the backlog by 2015, mainly by replacing paper claims with a digital process.

“How many secretaries or presidents say, ‘I’m going to do something by a certain date?’ ” Mr. Sanders said in an interview.

But even if Mr. Shinseki stays in his job, the sharper tone of the criticism suggests that the department, the second largest in the federal government, after the Department of Defense, will continue facing closer scrutiny than in the past.

“You never had Jon Stewart talking about this before, and that is huge,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. “The situation is so bad it makes for great comedy.”

Intensified media coverage is part of the new equation. Many newspapers and television news programs have done major reports on the backlog this year. And a nonprofit news organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting, has created a database loaded with documents, statistics and an interactive map showing the varying processing times for disability claims at the department’s 58 regional offices.

There also is a generational component to the debate. Older, more traditional veterans groups have supported Mr. Shinseki and endorsed his plan for ending the backlog. Those groups agree with him that the backlog is less about incompetence and more about an antiquated processing system overwhelmed by new veterans, aging veterans and expanded benefits programs.

Bob Wallace, the executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Washington office, praised the administration for investing money on automating the claims system. “The backlog has been a problem for years,” he said. “I hate to say this as an advocate, but fixing it is not going to happen overnight.”

But many younger veterans have been more impatient for change. And those younger veterans have been aggressive about raising the backlog issue online, on television and in Washington. “For people in their 20s, the idea that we can’t get this technology updated seems ridiculous,” said Mr. Rieckhoff, who served as an Army infantry officer in Iraq.

Supporters of Mr. Shinseki say partisan politics has also come into play, with Republicans using the department’s problems to raise broader complaints about big government and the Obama administration.

Mr. Hunter, for instance, said the agency — which has had major budget increases every year under Mr. Obama — did not need more money, but greater efficiency. “It needs to be run as a business, one that provides services,” he said in an interview. “Insurance companies do it all the time.”

Concerned Veterans for America also has a conservative tilt, calling for deficit reduction, criticizing stimulus spending and opposing deep cuts to the Pentagon budget.

The group’s executive director, Pete Hegseth, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army National Guard, unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for the Senate last year in Minnesota. He is also the former executive director of Vets for Freedom, a nonprofit group that supported the war in Iraq and criticized Mr. Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Mr. Hegseth declined to disclose his organization’s funding sources. But he denied having partisan intentions, noting that the group had joined forces with Mr. Rieckhoff, widely viewed as more liberal, on the backlog. And he said its pressure tactics had already had an impact, as Ms. Hickey recently announced plans to speed the processing of claims that are over a year old.

“This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with a younger, more aggressive veterans group not allowing the status quo to continue,” he said in an interview. “Why should we reflexively defend a leader who hasn’t gotten it done?”

Mr. Shinseki declined to be interviewed for this article. His spokesman, Josh Taylor, released a statement saying Mr. Shinseki “knows that any time you set out to make major transformational changes, criticism is part of the job.”

The statement added, “He is driving the organization hard toward aggressive goals, he knows we have more work to do and he is confident that we will end the backlog in 2015.”
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