The problem that President Obama was about to address was unconscionably big and growing worse: The huge backlog of Veterans’ Affairs benefits claims filed by men and women who once fought America’s battles — only to discover they now must battle their own government, just to get what they already earned.
And the setting and audience where the president would be unveiling his plan for resolving the problem was also big, and appropriate: A speech to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, gathered in Phoenix on Monday, plus all those watching on cable news television.
But when Obama finally got to his long awaited solution — two thirds of the way into a military kitchen sink of a speech that rolled through his commitment to end the Iraq war and continue the Afghanistan war — what it turned out that he had to offer was not very big at all. Nor very new. It was surprisingly small, so small that it almost read like satire.
It was the old suggestion box, one more time. Really.
" … We’re keeping our promise to fulfill another top priority at the VA: Cutting the red tape and inefficiencies that cause backlogs and delays in the claims process." He recalled his truly important order issued last spring to unify electronically all military and VA health records. And then he sprung his new big news:
"Today, I can announce that we’re taking another step. … We’re launching a new competition to capture the very best ideas of our VA employees who work with you every day. We’re going to challenge each of our 57 regional VA offices to come up with the best ways of doing business, of harnessing the best information technologies, of cutting red tape and breaking through the bureaucracy.
"And then we’re going to fund the best ideas and put them into action, all with a simple mission: cut those backlogs, slash those wait times, deliver your benefits sooner."
Say what? Isn’t that what the VA has said it was doing all along?
Obama seems to have been reading our minds. "I know you’ve heard this for years," the president continued, "but the leadership and resources we’re providing this time means that we’re going to be able to do it. That is our mission, and we are going to make it happen."
What they are going to do is to get new suggestions, once more time, from those who have been part of the old system that has so disserved America’s military veterans for so many years. A mindset has festered and spread within the system and culture of the department to the point that the VA has been functioning as if those who work there see themselves as a Department of Veterans’ Adversaries.
VA adjudicators around the country routinely deny, in ways that are shameful, benefits claims of veterans who have returned from wars — as if the goal was to find ways of keeping the money in the U.S. treasury, rather than paying it to those who earned it. Faithful readers know the most egregious examples that I’ve written about in past columns and in a book last year.
There was the Iraq war hero who returned home having lost a limb in combat and with massive shrapnel wounds. A VA adjudicator denied a benefits claim for the latter in these mind-boggling words: "Shrapnel wounds all over body not service connected." And the Iraq War military policeman, who led truck convoys through roads amid roadside bombs, whose claim for post-traumatic stress disorder was first denied even though he’d been diagnosed by two doctors from the VA itself. And his appeal was denied because he could not point to a single "stressor" incident that caused his PTSD.
To get rid of the backlog of claims — and lengthy appeals that can go on for years — what the VA needs is not a new electronic suggestion box, but a new name that will shatter the warped mindset of those who see their role as veterans’ adversaries. Let’s rename the building. Let’s call it the "Department of Veterans’ Advocates" — so that all will know their main job is to help veterans swiftly get what they have earned.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)