Who Broke the Department of Veterans Affairs?

Obama has failed to live up to his promises, but serious problems at the agency stretch as far back as John F. Kennedy's presidency.
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Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki is a former general. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Failure is an orphan—and there are few failures more toxic than those of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The agency, ostensibly created to help veterans heal from the wounds of war, is plagued by a backlog of claims from soldiers seeking help, leaving them to wait months or even years for compensation.

There's consensus that the backlog is unacceptable, and President Obama's administration pledged to eliminate it by the end of 2015. But the agency—and the backlog—is getting new attention due to a spate of deaths at VA hospitals, and Republicans are attempting to pin the agency's failures squarely on the president.

Looking for a lone villain in the VA debacle, however, is a fool's errand. It's true that—despite holding the world's most powerful post for five years—Obama is yet to eliminate the long waiting times for veterans seeking help. Blaming him alone, however, is to ignore roots of the problem that stretch back decades before Obama took the Oval Office.

Instead, the sheen of shame over the VA's failures spreads across time and party affiliation. It stains the legacies of presidents as far back as John F. Kennedy and condemns past Congresses whose poor oversight allowed the problem to fester. The VA itself is also not without fault, as bureaucracy and intransigence let the agency deteriorate to the point the problem became nearly impossible to fix.

So who really broke the VA? In sum, it's a failure with many silent fathers.

President Obama

Obama's experience with the VA is a testament to the danger of big promises—and high expectations.

He pledged to end the claims backlog while simultaneously making a string of moves that summoned a flood of new claims to the agency.

The administration made it easier for veterans to get compensation for both post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure to Agent Orange—a Vietnam War-era defoliant now tied to a long list of neurological disorders. Those moves extended help to long-suffering veterans, but they weren't matched by the VA reforms needed to adequately address the new claims. Agent Orange alone took up 37 percent of the Veterans Benefits Administration's claims-processing resources nationally from October 2010 to March 2012, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

And as claims soared during Obama's first years in office, so did wait times. In 2009, there were about 423,000 claims at the VA, with 150,000 claims pending for more than four months (the official wait time it takes a claim to be considered "backlogged"). By 2012, claims had exploded to more than 883,000—and 586,540 of those sat on the agency's backlog list.

The administration did request—and get from Congress—additional funding for the agency. The agency's budget totaled $100 billion in 2009. In 2014, it was up to $154 billion. But that money doesn't instantly transfer into an expanded capacity to meet veterans' needs: It takes approximately two years to fully train a claims worker; the blame for the staff crunch doesn't rest on Obama's shoulders alone.

The influx of claims has since fallen, and the backlog is greatly diminished—though there is controversy over how the administration has dealt with the claims. (For more on the administration's struggle to fix the VA, see here.)

"As a candidate, Barack Obama promised veterans the moon, but in many cases he hasn't delivered as president," said Republican Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "VA's disability claims backlog grew to historic levels on his watch .… Candidate Obama promised the most transparent administration in history, but his VA is a case study in how to stonewall the press, the public, and Congress."

Congress

Miller's own branch of government, however, cannot claim clean hands.

The VA could be overhauled to better address the needs of modern veterans, including reforms to the way it processes claims, assesses the performance of its employees, and measures its overall performance. But putting many of those reforms in place would require an act of Congress—and thus far those haven't happened.

Instead, Congress has taken a more reactive approach. When incidents—such as the recent hospital deaths—capture public attention, lawmakers hold hearings where they berate agency officials with juicy sound bites they can later play back for their constituents. It's good political theater, but it's unclear that the payoff is anything other than political.

"Congress has been totally exasperated by the VA's inability to get on top of the problem for a long time," said Linda Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School. "But they haven't been willing to really contemplate anything other than throwing more money at the problem."

Congress is taking some legislative steps now: The House is slated to vote this week on a VA accountability bill to make it easier to fire senior executives, and the latest VA funding bill banned bonuses to agency executives. But neither measure contains changes on the structural level.

And even when Congress has passed legislation aimed at improving the agency, its record of efficacy is mixed at best—especially in terms of eliminating the claims backlog.

In 2000, lawmakers passed the Veterans Claims Assistance Act. The law was signed by President Clinton and was, by all accounts, a well-meaning attempt to make it easier for veterans to get VA claims approved.

The law required that the VA tell a veteran what to do to prove a claim, help the veteran obtain necessary records, and inform the veteran when the VA could not obtain the information it needed. The law required the VA to retrieve the veteran's service medical records and provide exams when the VA did not have sufficient evidence to substantiate a claim.

But the law was ambiguous and left much open to interpretation, which had to be fought out in the courts. It wound up adding several additional layers of bureaucracy to an already clunky VA claims process without appropriating additional funds or human resources to manage the increased workload.

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Jordain Carney is a defense reporter at National Journal

Stacy Kaper is a staff writer (economics) for National Journal.

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