The veterans advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) gathered in front of the White House on Tuesday morning to deliver a petition calling on President Obama to take tangible steps to fix the backlog of benefit claims by veterans.
Before delivering the petition, CVA chief executive officer Pete Hegseth spoke to the gathered crowd about the backlog veterans are facing at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
When President Obama took office, the backlog of veterans’ benefit claims at the VA was 135,000, Hegseth said. It rose to 630, 000 four to five months ago, and has since dropped to about 475,000 today.
Hegseth took issue with the administration’s failure to get the backlog under control after promising to do so.
"At some point, if you’ve promised to deliver, results matter," Hegseth said.
The administration has argued that the situation is improving. Hegseth acknowledged the improvements but said there is more to be done.
"475,000 people still backlogged is not acceptable," he said.
The VA defended its work.
"This Administration has shown unwavering commitment to serve Veterans. VA has completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year the last three fiscal years," said VA spokesman Randal Noller in an email. "But too many veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve. That’s unacceptable, and we are implementing a robust plan to fix the problem."
Several decisions by the VA to expand benefits added to the backlog, as well as an increase in the number of soldiers returning from war and a greater complexity in claims, Noller said. The VA is working to digitize its records, for example, which will help it "complete all claims in 125 days with 98% accuracy by the end of 2015," Noller said.
Several veterans joined Hegseth at the event to talk about how the VA backlog affected them.
Scott MacHardy was injured in Iraq in 2007 after a mortar blew up near him. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and later began having seizures.
After leaving the Army’s active duty and entering the reserves, MacHardy found that he could not find a job because of his injuries. He waited a year to receive his VA disability benefits. During that time he went through his entire savings; maxed out his credit; and was left by his wife because of the strain his injuries placed on their relationship.
"There was a period of time when I was about a month from being homeless," he said.
The VA also made him wait an extra three months to receive his benefits so he could get an examination of his knee, even though the examination’s results would not change the benefits he would receive.
MacHardy said he finally received his benefits early last year after a local VA official with the "right rolodex" took up his case.
CVA’s petition, which has been signed by 26,000 people, calls on President Obama to fire VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Hegseth also called on the president to implement civil service reform.
"Right now Secretary Shinseki and under-Secretary Hickey, if they find underperformers in their midst or in their regional offices, they literally cannot fire them. No one has been fired for what has happened at VA," Hegseth said.
The VA has been manipulating its public data to make the situation look better than it actually is, said Darin Selnick, a former VA official in the George W. Bush administration who spoke to the crowd.
The VA stopped publishing the total number of pending claims in July, and they bury the accuracy of their claims processing, Selnick said. The accuracy is supposed to be 98 percent, but it is actually 90 percent, meaning that about 100,000 claims each year are processed inaccurately.
The VA also uses a provisional rating, which Selnick described as a bookkeeping maneuver that gives benefits to veterans on a provisional basis and allows the department to take their case off of the pending list without finishing the claim.
"That’s not right—that’s just playing around with the numbers," Selnick argued.
CVA will continue to gather signatures for the petition, Hegseth said. The group will also continue to run phone campaigns targeting certain congressional districts and other events to draw attention to the backlog at the VA.
"If we haven’t reformed it, changed the culture, a culture that reinforces mediocrity, a culture that is engulfed in bureaucracy, that lacks accountability, if we don’t address those systemic cultural problems, we’re going to have another backlog in the future," Hegseth told the crowd.
"For the VA to treat these men like this, it’s a sin and a shame," said Tammy Kaczur, whose husband died five years ago while waiting for his VA benefits.
"The VA sucks. It just surely does suck. That’s just plain and simple," she said.