Why Hasn't Obama Fixed the Veterans Affairs Department?

It's not enough to just throw resources at the VA's dysfunctional claims system. The problems are too deep and too complicated for an easy repair.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The failure of the Veterans Affairs Department to quickly compensate veterans for their disabilities is a moral abomination: It leaves soldiers wounded by war waiting in long lines for payments they need and believe they have earned.

And VA failures are under new scrutiny amid reports of a string of preventable deaths among veterans and a growing political controversy around them—and many in Congress are pointing a finger in the White House's direction.

So why has President Obama failed to fix the backlog of veterans' disability claims after five years in office? More than 300,000 claims to the VA have been pending for 125 days or more, a time stamp that puts them in the agency's official definition of "backlogged." 

And why did a long line of Obama's predecessors—Republican and Democratic alike—end their own tenures without fixing the problem?

In short, because fixing the VA backlog isn't just a question of putting the proper resources into an overwhelmed agency. Solving it would require not only untangling a Gordian knot of bureaucracy surrounding the VA claims system and decades of neglect, it would also mean overcoming a perfect storm of factors in the past few years that has made the problem much, much worse.

Surge in Claims

The VA received 1 million new claims during Obama's first year in office—the most it had ever received at one time—and the count climbed from there. Annual claims peaked in 2011 at 1.3 million, falling to 1.04 million claims received in 2013.

What's driving the surging number of claims? In short, a pair of wars that have created more veterans and new Obama administration rules that have made veterans from all wars eligible for more disability compensation.

The VA is dealing with a sudden influx of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans as the U.S. draws down its troop levels. Nearly 970,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans deployed overseas since 9/11 have filed a disability claim, according to a Freedom of Information Act request released to Veterans for Common Sense this month by the Veterans Benefits Administration.

And due to medical advances, many service members who would have died from their injuries in past wars are now being saved, but they are returning home with more numerous and more complicated injuries. Vietnam veterans typically claimed three or four injuries. Now a single veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan routinely submits a claim with the number of injuries in the double digits.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has also changed the rules to give more benefits to veterans. In 2010, the administration expanded coverage related to exposure to Agent Orange, a Vietnam War-era defoliant that has created a vast list of health problems. Veterans have long tied an assortment of illnesses to Agent Orange, and now more of those illnesses are covered.

Additionally, the administration made it easier for veterans to get coverage for post-traumatic-stress disorder, a disease less easily diagnosed and adjudicated than physical injuries. Since 2010, service members no longer have to provide documentation that supports their PTSD claims. Instead, a doctor performs an exam to determine that the veteran's symptoms are related to PTSD and that the cause of the PTSD, such as being under attack, is consistent with the veteran's military duties.

A Broken Agency

Not all of the VA's problems, however, come from external factors. The agency is haunted by its painfully slow embrace of technology: It did not have a digital way to process claims nationwide until 2013, and it long handled claims with a paper filing system. Victoria Dillon, a spokesperson for the VA, acknowledged that "these offices used to be stacks of papers everywhere," with claim files "18 inches thick on average."

By comparison, the IRS rolled out its electronic filing system across the country—albeit with some problems—in 1990.

The VA also uses a complicated regulatory code for dealing with claims that slows down the process. "The regulation dealing with [traumatic brain injury] is so complicated that some people call it the 'Da Vinci Code,' " Ronald Abrams, joint executive director for the National Veterans Legal Services Program, told lawmakers late last year.

The VA attempted to solve the problem by hiring more claims workers to handle the influx, but it takes approximately two years to fully train a claims worker to handle the complex process.

"Thousands of new PTSD and Agent Orange claims starting in 2010 overwhelmed an agency with a history of poor planning, chronic understaffing, and a lack of training," said Glenn R. Bergmann, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, a former VA litigator who represents veterans with VA disability-claim appeals.

Presented by

Jordain Carney is a defense reporter at National Journal

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

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