On October 18, an op-ed co-authored by Paul Rieckhoff of IAVA appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The piece covers the VA's egregious failure to process the claims of our veterans timely and effectively.
In a famous sequence in Joseph Heller's satirical war novel "Catch-22," the protagonist—bombardier Yossarian—makes an unauthorized call during an aerial bombing raid to take out a bridge by going in for a second run at the target. He scores a hit, destroying the bridge, but his decision inadvertently results in the death of a flight crew in another plane.
His superiors, embarrassed by the loss, try to figure out how to save face. Yossarian suggests they give him a medal. "You know, that might be the answer—to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of," Col. Korn responds. "That's a trick that never seems to fail."
In the novel, the scene skewers the bureaucratic misdirection of a military at war. But misdirection is a tactic that's alive and well today at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where officials boast about things they should be ashamed of.
Case in point: In July, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev., where he trumpeted the VA's accomplishments over the past four years in handling claims and providing services and support to veterans in need. Gen. Shinseki noted that when he took the helm in 2009, the VA inventory of pending claims was about 400,000. Today it is about 880,000.
He went on to say that the backlog of claims older than 125 days has grown by nearly 150%, to 580,000 today from 135,000 in 2009. To quote Gen. Shinseki, the "increased . . . number of compensation claims [is] good news." Growth in these numbers "is what happens when we increase access. But it was the right thing to do."
As the old military saying goes, however, failing to plan is planning to fail—and nothing can hide the painful truth that the leadership and bureaucracy were not ready for the surge of claimants. Gen. Shinseki has pledged to solve the backlog by 2015, and the VA has added 4,000 new employees since 2008. But the numbers already suggest we're headed in the wrong direction. And as more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return home in the months and years to come, the gap between claims and services will likely grow. That the problem has not even been mentioned in the presidential debates this fall is shameful, and a failure of leadership on the part of both candidates.
One organization doing yeoman work on this is the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, which has found that, particularly in more densely populated areas, wait times for VA services are increasing. According to the CIR, veterans in the Los Angeles area wait an average of 377 days for a response to their claims. In New York City, the average wait is 373 days. In Waco, Texas, the average wait is 413 days.
The backlog in claims processing represents real men and women with serious needs who aren't being served, after they have fought and sacrificed on behalf of our nation. Their stories are heartbreaking. For example, the CIR reports on a Marine veteran who suffered three concussions in combat and now experiences short-term memory loss so severe that he gets in the car and forgets where he's going. He has been waiting for the VA to process his disability claim since November 2010.
Numbers spun by the department to feign change aren't going to fix the VA's endemic failures. Only urgent and dynamic transformation will.
Transformation like moving all disability claims to an electronic, customer-service-based model that processes claims quickly, efficiently and accurately. Today's tech-savvy vets are returning home from combat to a bureaucracy still struggling to get out of the pencil-and-paper age.
Transformation like ensuring that the VA and the Department of Defense work together to seamlessly transition members from the DOD into the VA benefits system, rather than having a completely separate registration process.
Transformation like conducting a targeted outreach campaign that maximizes the use of modern technology, to make sure that veterans fully understand the benefits available to them at the VA.
Pilot programs have been launched in some of these areas, namely digital processing and VA-DOD integration. A new processing system is being used at 16 regional offices, with launches scheduled for 40 regional offices in 2013. The formal case transfer from the DOD to the VA system now happens automatically for those with disability ratings and medical discharges.
This is a good start. But for those waiting in line, and for Iraq and Afghanistan vets who have yet to file a claim, transformation cannot happen soon enough. The VA culture needs to adapt to the 21st-century needs of those it serves—by using 21st-century technology and solutions. Until that happens for everyone, and a veteran in New York or Texas doesn't have to wait more than a year for services, the Veterans Administration has nothing to boast about.
Mr. Hegseth is CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and an infantry officer who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Rieckhoff is founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and served as an infantry officer in Iraq.