Bakersfield: Holding the VA Accountable

From the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan, our military is the force protecting our nation and the ideals upon which it was founded. Every day, the brave men and women in our armed forces risk their lives — and too frequently make the ultimate sacrifice — to defend and preserve our freedom and way of life. One way we honor those who have served is by ensuring they get the care to which they are entitled when they return home. This is why Congress rightly voted to increase resources for veterans’ health — an uncommon occurrence in today’s fiscal climate. However, despite increased resources, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is failing to provide our veterans with timely benefits and services.

In January, I wrote about the unacceptable backlogs and wait times that our veterans are forced to face at the VA. The Los Angeles Regional Office, which serves Kern County veterans, is one of the worst in the country. Eighty percent of the more than 25,000 claims are backlogged, forcing some veterans to wait years before they receive benefits or even medical appointments. These horrific stories prompted me to request the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to conduct an audit on the VA to identify the real causes of the problems and recommend solutions.

The GAO audits confirmed our veterans’ worst complaints. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s stated goal is to process claims within 125 days by 2015, but the GAO found that the average processing time is now 318 days. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller and I immediately called upon Shinseki to take swift action to implement the GAO’s recommendations, including specific steps such as:

* Partnering with the Department of Defense to reduce time frames to gather records from National Guard and Reserve sources.

* Partnering with the Social Security Administration to reduce time frames to gather social security medical records.

* Ensuring the development of a robust plan that defines performance goals that include the impact of individual initiatives on processing timeliness.

The VA can begin by focusing its efforts on integrating VA and DOD health data and upgrading existing records into a single shared electronic health-records system. More broadly, changes must be made that address the structural problems within the VA as well as the lack of modern technology — the Los Angeles clinic, for example, is still 100 percent paper-based. Furthermore, personnel must be motivated and properly trained. There is no one transformative fix; changes in technology, process, people, and greater accountability among its leadership and senior employees are required.

As I said in January, I will hold VA leadership accountable to this goal. That is why this month, the Veterans Affairs Committee held two hearings in Washington, attended by senior VA officials and representatives from the GAO, where I questioned VA Undersecretary Allison Hickey on the alarming statistics in the GAO audits and blatant leadership problems within the VA. But instead of acknowledging many of the problems identified by the GAO, Hickey denied many of the audits’ findings. For example, when I asked her about productivity, she said it had increased. But GAO statistics show it has actually dropped over the last 10 years. If the VA is meeting its own productivity metrics, why did they have to close down the Los Angeles Regional Office for four weeks in January to retrain the staff? Equally as troubling, according to the VA’s own Monday Morning Workload reports, the shutdown did not improve the processing delays — in fact, they are just as bad as before.

It is clear that the VA needs a comprehensive cultural change that is more results-oriented and respectful of the needs of our veterans. I have requested that the VA report to Congress a plan on how the VA is going to implement the GAO’s recommendations and better process claims in a timely manner that ensures accountability and improves outcomes. The men and women who have served our country deserve our gratitude for helping to ensure that we can wake up every morning to a nation of endless possibilities. The dysfunction within the VA is unacceptable and I will hold VA leadership accountable until these problems are corrected and our veterans see real results.