The Department of Veterans Affairs needs a watchdog. This is the single most important thing I have learned since joining the House Veterans Affairs Committee in January. The Committee must stay vigilant because, if not, the VA will not perform up to the level the Congress expects and veterans deserve.
As the chairman of the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, I have been shocked at the level of bureaucratic incompetence the VA has shown in their ability to reduce the disability claims backlog. Although their reported goal is to have average wait times of 125 days per claim by 2015, the current reality is that many veterans wait an average of 270-plus days before their claim is processed.
I have little hope that this department will reach its 2015 goal of reducing the average wait time to 125 days because the VA has not laid out intermediate metrics between now and 2015 that show how it will reach its goals. A recent Government Accountability Office report, in response to the VA's 2015 goal, concluded that “this plan lacks any metrics or deadlines to ensure these goals are met.”
In a May letter to the president, I, along with over 160 members of the House, expressed our dismay with the lack of progress in the backlog. We wrote, “This country must be grateful for the safe homecoming of every single man and woman who has served in harm's way. Our joy in their return must be reflected in our commitment to helping all who have served.”
I lay the responsibility of the likely failure of the VA's backlog plan at the feet of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. Although Congress has allocated a huge 40 percent increase in the VA's budget at a time when other agency budgets are being slashed, the backlog is growing rather than shrinking. The VA lacks effective leadership, not inadequate resources. The secretary must be more forceful in shaking up the status quo.
The issues with the claims backlog, as with Gulf War illness research, hospital construction and cyber security, are not funding-related; rather it is a cultural problem within the department that must be fixed. I know firsthand that the VA does not answer my inquiries in a timely manner and too often I hear from veteran service organizations and individual veterans that the VA is not responsive to their questions as well.
Often times, my Oversight hearings become embattled stalemates between my subcommittee and representatives from the VA until witnesses are forced to answer questions from members.
Unfortunately, the answers usually confirm my pre-existing belief that the VA has acted wrongly either intentionally or incompetently. Either way, a disappointing pattern has emerged that we must change.
For this reason, I have supported strong actions like suspending bonuses for VA employees, and I have joined Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California in legislation that would create a commission to implement recommendations from the Government Accountability Office that will help reduce the claims processing time. Further, I have instituted a post-traumatic stress working group with Sen. Mark Udall to look for ways the VA can help treat veterans with PTSD and whether the VA can alter its claims process to better fit the needs of these disability claims.
It is our absolute moral duty to help the VA overcome its problems so it can finally make progress against the disability claims backlog. As a Marine Corps combat veteran myself, I have a personal stake in the success of the VA and I will continue to press them to improve so our veterans are getting the care and service they have earned.
Mike Coffman is the U.S. Representative for Colorado's 6th District. He is a Marine Corps combat veteran and has a combined 21 years of military experience between the Army, the Army Reserve, the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Reserve.