Recently, the National Commander of the American Legion called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and other Under Secretaries in his agency to resign. It was the first time since 1941 that the veterans’ organization called for such a presidential appointee to step down. The American Legion Commander cited poor oversight and failed leadership in the VA when explaining his position. He listed a number of recent high-profile scandals that have “infected” the VA system as reasons for his public request.
According to the VA, the agency is currently involved with administering services for:
* 8.9M veterans enrolled in the health care system.
* 4.3M vets and survivors receiving compensation and pensions.
* 2M veterans with active home loans, with 950 applications approved daily.
* 1.6M veterans and dependents receiving education and training benefits under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill.
* 120,000 who receive final honors or burial in one of the VA’s 131 cemeteries.
The list of VA problems is long and not new to veteran advocates who continue to urge the government to do better. Advocate and VA Watchdog Jim Strickland enumerates some of the allegations, which include a VA clinic in Ft. Collins, CO allegedly falsifying records to make it appear that doctors were seeing all VA patients within two weeks. In addition, the Phoenix, AZ VA hospital is accused of using a secret waiting list, which may have resulted in the death of 40 veterans.
There have been recent articles documenting a long-standing backlog of VA claims that have been reduced by 44% to “just” 344,000 on March 31. Vets are now facing an average wait of “only” 119 days to receive a decision on a claim, provided that all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted.
So, is the VA ready for prime time?
According to the budget proposed in February by the Obama administration, the Army is expected to shrink to pre-WWII levels. There are also calls to retire hundreds of aircraft and warships. National Guard units are also expected to be downsized.
Like the post-draft, Vietnam-Era drawdown, advocates worry that soldiers will be discharged just short of vesting for military pensions. In New York State alone, 44,000 newly discharged veterans are expected to return within the next three years. These brave men and women will be in need of benefits and will be filing claims in an already overwhelmed VA administrative system. They will be seeking health care in an already overwhelmed VA medical system. They will also be seeking housing, education, and most importantly, jobs in a most challenging economic climate.
Former Lt. Governor Betsy McCaughey said it best in a recent NY Post editorial: “Veterans’ demand for medical care exceeds the VA’s capacity. Again and again, VA bureaucrats have responded to that problem by lying, gaming the electronic-monitoring system and making false promises to the public.”
The looming question of whether the VA is up to the task and whether the President and the Congress are ready to meet the challenge is one that I shudder to consider.