In this photo taken Aug. 2, 2010, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens to President Barack Obama speak about Iraq and Afghanistan at the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press - Ap

These piles of files contain veterans’ disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Salt Lake City.

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As disability claims pile up, anger at veterans affairs secretary grows

  • Article by: JAMES DAO
  • New York Times
  • May 18, 2013 - 10:19 PM


The 30-second Web video has the edgy quality of a campaign-season attack ad, including ominous music, grainy photos and a closing demand: “It’s time for new leadership.”

But the target is not an elected official, or a politician at all. It is President Obama’s secretary of veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, the man being held accountable for his overwhelmed agency’s problems.

And for one problem in particular: “the backlog,” the huge and probably still growing inventory of claims for disability compensation filed by wounded or ill veterans. As of Monday, just under 600,000 claims qualified as backlogged, meaning they had been pending for more than 125 days.

Though the numbers have grown, delays in processing disability claims are nothing new, and neither are complaints about the backlog. Just last year, some veterans advocates tried to make the backlog a presidential campaign issue. They failed. But this year, something changed: The criticism of the department grew louder and perhaps more partisan, and began reaching a wider audience.

A new conservative-leaning nonprofit organization, Concerned Veterans for America, produced the Web video calling for Shinseki’s resignation and is sponsoring a similar online petition, which has been signed by more than 9,000 people. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine Corps veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has joined the call.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest organization representing the new generation of veterans, has also made the backlog the focus of aggressive lobbying in Washington, writing a letter signed by 67 senators that urges Obama to “take direct action” to resolve the problem. The group has stopped short, however, of calling for Shinseki’s resignation.

The backlog has become a repeated topic of outraged ­ridicule on “The Daily Show,” on which the host, Jon Stewart, has skewered the paper-choked bureaucracy. Describing Shinseki’s promise to end the backlog in two years, Stewart — reflecting the sentiment of many veterans — sarcastically observed in one segment: “In only two more years, they are hoping to have you wait only four more months.”

Shinseki, a former four-star general, remains deeply respected in Congress and, for the moment, secure in his job. The White House has expressed support for him, as have many mainline veterans organizations. Even the Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, called him “an honorable, trustworthy gentleman” in an interview. But Miller raised questions about the secretary’s staff, calling for the ­firing of Allison A. Hickey, the undersecretary who oversees disability compensation.

The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., also praises Shinseki for doing something rare in Washington: setting a deadline, in this case to end the backlog by 2015, mainly by replacing paper claims with a digital process. “How many secretaries or presidents say, ‘I’m going to do something by a certain date?’ ” Sanders said.

But even if Shinseki stays in his job, the sharper tone of the criticism suggests that the department, the second largest in the federal government, after the Department of Defense, will continue facing closer scrutiny than in the past.

“You never had Jon Stewart talking about this before, and that is huge,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. “The situation is so bad it makes for great comedy.”

Intensified media coverage is part of the new equation. And a nonprofit news organization, the Center for ­Investigative Reporting, has created a database loaded with documents, statistics and an interactive map showing the varying processing times for disability claims at the department’s 58 regional offices.

Bob Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Washington office, praised the administration for investing money on ­automating the claims system. “The backlog has been a problem for years,” he said. “I hate to say this as an advocate, but fixing it is not going to happen overnight.”


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