Reporter James Dao at the New York Times has been doing some sterling work recently exploring the dysfunction at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—and more importantly, exposing how that dysfunction is leading to worse service for veterans and the abuse of taxpayer dollars.
In case you missed it, Dao dug in to the benefits backlog at the VA last week in a story that will leave you shaking your head:
For hundreds of thousands of veterans, the result has been long waits for decisions, mishandled documents, confusing communications and infuriating mistakes in their claims.
Numbers tell the story. Last year, veterans filed more than 1.3 million claims, double the number in 2001. Despite having added nearly 4,000 new workers since 2008, the agency did not keep pace, completing less than 80 percent of its inventory.
This year, the agency has already completed more than one million claims for the third consecutive year. Yet it is still taking about eight months to process the average claim, two months longer than a decade ago. As of Monday, 890,000 pension and compensation claims were pending.
Skyrocketing costs have accompanied that flood of claims. By next year, the department’s major benefit programs — compensation for the disabled, pensions for the low-income and educational assistance — are projected to cost about $76 billion, triple the amount in 2001. By 2022, those costs are projected to rise nearly 70 percent to about $130 billion.
One attorney who works on VA claims describes the department’s efforts at reform as “rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship”—a painful but apt metaphor. Read the whole story—the fecklessness and incompetence at the VA will make your blood boil.
Much of the problem is systemic: more veterans mean more claims, and with improvements in technology and field medical treatment, more warfighters are returning home with injuries and disabilities (as compared to earlier conflicts, when a combat injury was a death sentence.) That puts a tough burden on the VA.
But the story also makes clear that the VA’s bureaucratic culture, which prizes process and production quotas over outcomes, is a big part of the problem as well. That likely won’t be improved by adding more employees; what’s needed is a departmental overhaul that puts a premium on customer service.
Previously, Dao covered departmental whistleblowers who revealed that the VA has been issuing duplicate and inflated payments to many beneficiaries, at the same time that other veterans are waiting months and even years for the benefits they earned.
Complaining about the media is a cherished American pastime on both the left and right (often with good reason). So when a reporter and a major newspaper dedicate the time and resources to expose government failures with this much skill, we should take the time to recognize that effort. Kudos to James Dao and the New York Times for bringing these stories to light—and shame on our leaders in Washington for allowing these conditions at the VA to persist.
Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Hegseth is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.