Gen. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, is defending his agency from charges that they are moving far too slowly to process the thousands of disability claims by veterans who were injured in the wars.
The mountain of benefits claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs is a result of an outdated paper process and new levels of complexity in returning troops' cases, the agency's boss said in an interview Sunday.
"No veteran should have to wait for claims. If there's anybody impatient here, I am that individual, and we're pushing hard," Gen. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"Veterans in the last four years have joined us in unprecedented numbers," Shinseki told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, noting that while the backlog of cases had spiked in his tenure at the VA, millions of cases were still being processed.
"We've put three million claims out the door," he said. "If you have an inventory of about 875,000, a million claims decisions going out a year, you know we're taking care of business. There are going to be a few that are complex enough to run longer than we would like."
The latest report from the VA, issued March 16, indicated a total of 895,838 benefits claims were pending. Almost 630,000 of those have been pending for more than 125 days.
The number of unprocessed requests for benefits and pensions has caused outrage among veterans and lawmakers, who question why it's taking so long to provide servicemen and women the compensation they were promised.
Money, Shinseki said, isn't the problem - while most government agencies in Washington are finding new ways to cut costs amid budget crunches, the VA has seen its budget increase by 40% since 2009.
The winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to the pile of unprocessed requests for benefits, Shinseki explained, along with veterans who served multiple tours filing more than one claim.
An antiquated system still reliant on paper forms is also to blame, Shinseki said.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House is calling for the head of the undersecretary of benefits for misleading a court on rules covering disability eligibility:
Failure to fix the long waits veterans face when seeking disability benefits earned through military service warrants the removal of the top Department of Veterans Affairs executive directly responsible, according to the chairman of the House committee overseeing the agency.
The call from Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., for the ouster of Allison Hickey, VA's under secretary for benefits, comes as officials there face possible sanctions for deliberately misleading a federal court about an illegal rule that makes it harder for veterans to prove they are entitled to benefits.
Miller is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is scheduled to appear Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" program in his first national television interview in four years. He is certain to be questioned about the VA's claims backlog, Miller's call for Hickey's removal and the federal court case.
"VA's disability benefits backlog problem is getting worse, not better, and veterans are suffering as a result," Miller told The Washington Examiner.
"That is why I believe a new under secretary for benefits would be best suited to help VA formulate a realistic plan for eliminating the department's disability benefits backlog and to tell Congress what they need to get the job done. America's veterans and America's taxpayers deserve nothing less."
Miller's ire is directed at Hickey, who told the Florida Republican's committee earlier this week that the agency is on track to meet its goal of processing all disability and pension claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
The sheer number of claims is hardly an excuse for delay. The VA can hire as many people as it takes to speed up processing. Congress would give them the money in a heartbeat.
This has far more to do with bureaucrats writing rules that are poorly drawn up and incompetently executed. No doubt there are more than a few veterans seeking to game the system and receive benefits for which they are not entitled. But there should be a better way to process the claims while maintaining standards that limit waste.
Has the effort been made? It hardly seems so.