The massive backlog of veterans’ benefit claims came under scrutiny at a Senate Veterans Affairs hearing on Monday afternoon about President Barack Obama’s federal budget and its Veterans Affairs component.
While much of the federal budget is facing constriction due to mandatory cuts, the Department of Veterans Affairs has seen its budget expand since 2009. This year the department’s discretionary spending is growing by $2.7 billion, or over 4 percent.
Veterans Affairs has come under fire in recent years for the massive and expanding backlog of veterans benefit claims. There are almost 900,000 pending claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs; 600,000 of those are considered backlogged, meaning they have been pending for 125 days or longer.
"That is the worst manifestation of government gone wrong," said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. "And who pays the price for it? The veterans."
"If there’s any issue that I think veterans and the veterans’ community is [sic] concerned about, it is that issue, and I share that concern," said Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) in his opening statement.
The concern over delays in services for veterans was a recurring theme throughout the hearing, at which secretary of veterans affairs Eric Shinseki and several of his assistant secretaries testified.
Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) expressed the most skepticism at the department’s efforts to alleviate the backlog, wondering aloud if the department had been good stewards of the increasing funds that they have been allocated.
"Along with that funding we must conduct vigorous oversight," Burr said.
Shinseki addressed the criticisms directly in his testimony, calling the backlog "unacceptable."
He pledged to eliminate the backlog by 2015 and laid out a three-point plan to achieve his goal, the prongs of which involve training employees, improving the process of dealing with claims, and harnessing technology to expedite the claims.
Almost all veterans’ benefit claims had been processed on paper until now. However, the department is moving to an electronic system for dealing with claims and hopes to have the transition complete by 2015.
Shinseki said a number of factors, including an increased number of claims from veterans, have contributed to the backlog.
Burr noted the department has been "consistently inconsistent" in its workload predictions. The president’s budget predicts the department’s workload to be about 12 percent lower than the department’s strategic plan did in January.
"This budget provides one more reason to question those assurances" by the department, Burr said.
Shinseki and undersecretary for benefits Allison Hickey both defended the changing numbers, saying there are a number of dynamic factors that go into the predictions and the department is constantly updating its assumptions.
Other senators were inclined to give the department more leeway in its efforts.
"You’re really working at it, and I believe that," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.V.).
"Does that give veterans enough comfort? No, but everything in life is a process."
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) gave Hickey an opportunity to explain an email that was leaked to the press in which the undersecretary sent what appeared to be an urgent appeal for help to solve the claims backlog by seeking ideas from "big brain" people.
Both Shinseki and Hickey indicated the email was not unusual for the department.
"This is something that we have been doing for three years, going out and getting the best minds," Shinseki said.
The department’s efforts to reduce the backlog have not been enough to quell the concerns of veterans groups.
Hegseth said the department’s efforts to migrate paper claims to electronic forms have been a failure. After spending $500,000 on a new program that would transition claims to the Internet, 97 percent of claims are still processed with paper, Hegseth said.
"You can’t just keep throwing good money at bad," Hegseth said.
The senators also discussed other issues facing the department, including coordination with the Department of Defense and the growing problem of veteran homelessness and suicide.
Sanders repeatedly inquired about veterans’ access to certain forms of alternative medicine, including yoga and acupuncture.
Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health, indicated the department is working on educating its benefit providers on the virtues of alternative medicine. For example, the department is spending $5 million on research into meditation and its role in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, Petzel said.