President-elect Barack Obama’s choice of retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, a Vietnam War veteran who sustained combat-related injuries, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs sends a clear message to the hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans that, unlike President George W. Bush, Obama takes the sacrifices they have made seriously.
At a news conference in Chicago on Sunday where he introduced Shinseki, Obama said “there is no one more distinguished, more determined, or more qualified to build this VA than the leader I am announcing as our next secretary of Veterans Affairs -- General Eric Shinseki. No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need."
On his transition website, change.gov, Obama said he intends to “Fix the Benefits Bureaucracy: Hire additional claims workers, and improve training and accountability so that VA benefit decisions are rated fairly and consistently. Transform the paper benefit claims process to an electronic one to reduce errors and improve timeliness.”
Shinseki promised veterans that he will “work each and every day to ensure that we are serving you as well as you have served us. We will pursue a 21st century VA that serves your needs.”
He said the military “deserve a smooth, error-free, no- fail, benefits-assured transition into our ranks as veterans and that is our responsibility, not theirs.”
Shinseki, if confirmed, will lead an agency that Rep. Bob Filner, the head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said last month that the VA created a “culture of dishonesty” over the way it has treated some of the more than 350,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans under its care.
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Filner said the VA is now at a “critical juncture” and “is on the verge of completely losing the trust and confidence of the people that it is supposed to represent…the very same people it has been entrusted to care for,” he said. These [benefits claims] are matters of life and death for some of these veterans.”
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Shinseki will streamlining the process for the hundreds of thousands of benefits claim that have clogged the VA system.
Last month, internal watchdogs discovered 500 benefits claims in shredding bins at the 41 of the 57 regional VA offices around the country.
The incident resulted in hastily arranged roundtable discussion last week led by House Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner who excoriated the VA for creating a “culture of dishonesty” that he said has become so pervasive over the years that it has completely shattered the confidence of war veterans who feel they can no longer depend on the agency for help when they return from combat.
“This episode has further strengthened my belief that VA desperately needs new leadership, and it needs new leadership today,” Filner, D-CA, said. “These incidents and "mistakes," all occurring to the detriment of our veterans and never to their benefit, remind me more of the Keystone Cops rather than a supportive organization dedicated to taking care of our veterans.
"First, I am not convinced that only 500 documents were saved from the shredding bin. This is merely a snapshot in time. The VA was unable to convince me that more documents have not been shredded in the past and I honestly do not know how many records have been destroyed and how many files lost over the past decades.”
Two days before the Nov. 19 meeting, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James B. Peake posted a press released on the agency’s website stating that he was “deeply concerned that improper actions by a few VA employees could have caused any veterans to receive less than their full entitlement to benefits earned by their service to our nation.”
Filner said that was not good enough.
"The VA’s outreach has been limited to a reliance on media reports and a message on the VA website. The VA did not report a systematic way of reaching out to veterans to alert them of new policies that may have huge implications in their claims going forward. Congress must hold the VA accountable for a job not well done. A complete paradigm shift is necessary and I look forward to working with new leadership to correct the problems plaguing the benefits claims system.”
Peake is widely despised by veterans and veterans rights groups. He and the VA have been sued numerous times this year for allegedly covering up cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and for likening the disease to "what anyone who played football in their youth might have suffered.”
In May, during a trip to Alaska in to meet with a Vietnam veteran, Peake, said concerns about PTSD were “overblown” and said veterans who suffer from the disease just "need a little counseling" and don't "need the PTSD label their whole lives."
Peake's comments were made just a couple of weeks after the RAND Corporation released a study that said about 300,000 U.S. troops sent to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from major depression or PTSD, and 320,000 received traumatic brain injuries largely due to multiple deployments.
“There is a major health crisis facing those men and women who have served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Terri Tanielian, a researcher at RAND who worked on the study. “Unless they receive appropriate and effective care for these mental health conditions, there will be long-term consequences for them and for the nation. Unfortunately, we found there are many barriers preventing them from getting the high-quality treatment they need.”
Shinseki is unlikely to follow in Peake’s footsteps. He was, after all, the Army Chief of Staff who, in February 2003, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and said several hundred thousands soldiers would likely be needed to maintain order from ethnic strife in post-invasion Iraq
Shinseki was publicly criticized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and was forced into an early retirement. He has since been vindicated. But there is no doubt that Rumsfeld’s refusal to listen to career military officials like Shinseki led to the benefits crisis unfolding at the VA today.
Underscoring just how under-prepared the VA was for the number of PTSD cases that would emerge from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, documents released to support the veterans’ lawsuit show that prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq the VA believed it would likely see a maximum of 8,000 cases where veterans showed signs of PTSD.
In the book, "The Three Trillion Dollar War," by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, the authors wrote that “even in 2000, before the war” the VA was the subject of numerous Government Accountability Office studies that “identified long-standing problems, including large backlogs of pending claims, lengthy processing time for initial claims, high rates of error in processing claims, and inconsistency across regional offices.”
“In a 2005 study,” Stiglitz and Blimes wrote, “the GAO found that the time to complete a veteran’s claim varied from 99 days at the Salt Lake City Office to 237 days in Honolulu. In a 2006 study, GAO found that 12 percent of claims were inaccurate.”
The authors estimate that the VA will spend hundreds of billions of dollars in healthcare and disability benefits over several decades and the process for approving benefits claims could average one year.
Last March, the VA was sued in federal court by two veterans groups who sought a preliminary injunction to force the VA to immediately treat veterans who show signs of post traumatic stress disorder and are at risk of suicide and to overhaul internal system that handles benefits claims.
The federal judge who presided over the case, ruled last June that he lacked the legal authority to force the VA to immediately treat war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and could not order the VA to overhaul its internal systems that handle benefits claims and medical services. However, in an 82-page ruling U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti said that it is “clear to the court” that “the VA may not be meeting all of the needs of the nation’s veterans.”
On July 25, the veterans advocacy groups who filed the lawsuit against the VA, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, appealed the judge’s ruling at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They are still waiting to hear if the appeals court will hear the case.
Now the VA is the subject of a similar lawsuit filed by two other veterans advocacy groups who claim that the VA’s failure to process benefits claims in a timely manner has caused severe economic hardships for hundreds of thousands of veterans.
"The VA's failure to provide timely benefits decisions often leads to financial crises, homelessness, addiction and suicide," says the lawsuit filed in November in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Vietnam Veterans for America and Veterans of Modern Warfare.
The lawsuit demands the VA provide veterans with interim benefits while they wait for their claims to be processed.
In a letter to Obama last month, Paul Sullivan, the executive director of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, said the VA needs “an immediate overhaul to avert a perfect storm of problems threatening to overwhelm” the agency.
“The economic recession is forcing more veterans who have lost their jobs and medical care into VA,” Sullivan said. The VA “faces a tsunami of up to one million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans flooding into VA. And...VA faces a surge of hundreds of thousands of additional Vietnam War veterans seeking care for mental health conditions as well as medical conditions linked to Agent Orange poisoning.
“Our vision is that whenever a veteran comes to any VA facility, his or her medical and benefit needs should be quickly and completely addressed, without red tape, delay, stigma, or discrimination. For too many veterans this vision is a fantasy, however, because recent VA leadership has failed to put our veterans first and has inadequately funded vital services and programs.”
On Sunday, Sullivan said choosing Shinseki is the first step toward rehabilitating the VA.
“As a decorated and wounded Vietnam War combat veteran, we believe he has the bold leadership experience needed to implement President-Elect Obama's agenda to reform VA for the 21st Century,” Sullivan said.
"I am excited. I don't know him personally but this is a huge move," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
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