February 4th, 2009
06:00 PM ET
14 years ago

Eliminating backlog of cases, paperwork among VA chief's priorities

WASHINGTON (CNN) - The newly appointed head of the Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday the department needs a fundamental change in how it handles its paperwork.

Eric Shinseki described a Sisyphean task for caseworkers trying to plow through the backlog of files to make decisions on veterans' claims.

"If you were to walk into one of our rooms where adjudication or decisions are being made about disability for veterans, you would see individuals sitting at a desk with stacks of paper that go up halfway to the ceiling. And as they finish one pile, another pile comes in," Shinseki said at a House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing.

Sorting through the paperwork employs as many people as the number of troops in the 82nd Airborne - approximately 11,100, he said. This year, 1,100 more will be hired, he said, and even more will be needed unless the department moves to a paperless system.

"In my opinion this is a brute-force solution. We need to very quickly take this into an IT [information technology] format that allows us to do timely, accurate, consistent decision making on behalf of our veterans," Shinseki said. "My intent is to get to a paperless solution as quickly as possible."

Moving to a paperless system would allow for better coordination of records and allow the VA to better keep personnel and medical records, some of which are already electronic, together, he said.

Members of the committee peppered Shinseki with questions about the VA's handling of mental health issues. The secretary said that much progress has been made in understanding traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) since he served in Vietnam, but there is plenty more to do.

"I am now watching all of our efforts to understand PTSD, TBI, substance abuse amongst our veterans and have a better appreciation of what we put my comrades through when we came back" from Vietnam, he said. "None of these programs were available, in fact. None of these terms were in vogue then. We still don't understand enough. We are still learning."

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bob Filner, D-California, expressed frustration that screenings for the disorders were done through a self-evaluation, rather than through medical examination, and he implored Shinseki to change that.

"As you know, you can order that to happen and it is not happening," Filner told Shinseki. "We just have to move away from that. The numbers are too high. The denial is too great. The problems are overwhelming us in the civilian world."

Shinseki said that while there is more to do, the VA has made much progress by integrating mental treatment with primary care.

"One of the things we have done at the VA is that we've taken mental health from being in a separate part of the complex and moved it into the primary-care area to reduce the stigma of someone having to go to that part of the hospital," he explained.

Citing VA statistics, he said that since screening began in April 2007 for all Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, the VA has diagnosed 43,000 cases that had not been tracked before. Of those, 12,500 have since been confirmed TBI cases.

Suicide attempts are also a major issue for the VA, Shinseki said. The department has a national suicide hotline that got 67,000 calls from veterans and some active duty personnel between October 2007 and October 2008 and managed to intervene to prevent suicides in 1,700 cases. Over the past three months, he added, the hotline has helped intervene on 700 calls.

"We are doing more. Not enough. We are learning as we go," he noted.

When nominated for the position, Shinseki said he wanted to work closely with other departments, like the Small Business Administration, Labor Department and Housing and Urban Development, whose programs help veterans. Shinseki said the veterans programs might be practical for non-military people as well.

"I think in many ways the veterans population is a microcosm of what is going on in the country," he said. "If we can harness their talent, their capabilities and partner with them, we may come up with solutions that may be models for others."

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soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Ex Air Force MSGT

    I guess my comment hit home...hey CNN, nothing will change at the VA, truthful comments must be removed if you don't agree with them ?

    February 4, 2009 08:58 pm at 8:58 pm |
  2. Matthew Detroit

    The problem with the VA is easy to diagnose.

    The VA is run by the goverment. A health system run by the goverment.

    This is why it does not work.

    I really think the military men should get normal healthcare like everyone else. I think if you serve you get regular hospital treatment. The VA is a joke. Spend some money on the troops and not on bums.

    February 4, 2009 09:06 pm at 9:06 pm |
  3. Michiganian

    Too bad Bush didn't give a rip about all the servicepeople who would be coming HOME injured from his wars...only about getting them over there.

    I hope things improve!

    February 4, 2009 09:06 pm at 9:06 pm |
  4. Steve in Las Vegas,NV

    This is not news to me. When I left the Air Force there was a forest of paper and a ocean of ink...Soo many forms to sign, forms for this and that...They love forms. Paperwork galore

    Now they have computers, but they still love forms, but who even knows who reads them? Or what happens to them.

    Our service people who have come to expect the best of care usually have to fill out a myriad of forms before anything can be done.

    They and we, the taxpayers, deserve so much better than what we get. Our vets need a 21st century system and so much better care than what they get now. Speak up, hold the elected officials accountable.

    Even today some VA hospitals are not up to standards, so if you see anything that is deficient call or write to complain. Demand satisfaction!

    February 4, 2009 09:34 pm at 9:34 pm |
  5. California Gold

    There are thousands of unemployed Americans: out of work, starving, living in their cars, who would jump at the opportunity to work for the government. The VA would have the most motivated and appreciative work force imagineable. The backlog would be processed f-a-s-t.

    February 4, 2009 09:42 pm at 9:42 pm |
  6. jaye

    Hire more people and get it done!
    Our veterans are always crapped on.

    February 4, 2009 09:57 pm at 9:57 pm |
  7. Meka


    February 4, 2009 10:03 pm at 10:03 pm |
  8. take care of our troops

    I am very against the iraq and afganistan wars, but probably the afganistan was necessary

    if you want to do damage to our armed forces, as the bush administration was doing, neglect our returning troops

    all money spent to take special care of them is well worth it

    February 4, 2009 10:08 pm at 10:08 pm |
  9. Former Marine Air-winger

    Well, i was lucky when I separated from the Corps, had my claim go through and was rated very quickly (within 4 months of sep). I did this back in 2004 after getting back from OIF. I have not used the VA med facilities, but I did manage to pay for both my Bachelor's and Master's degrees using the old (chap. 30) GI BILL. Sure, I had to work while I went to school, but if you use it like a scholarship, not an entitlement that pays all bills, it can last you a long time. The people that complain about the GI BILL are ignorant, possibly due to their own inaction. The GI BILL (chap 30) provides for 36 months of full time benefits, however, if you request 1/2 time that (do the math) ends up being 72 months of entitlement. So, if the pay rate is $1000 per month (its more now) you can choose to exhaust your entitlement in 36 months or 72 months, just at different rates of payment. Where vets get in trouble is taking the full payment for 36 months, not working, and then coming up short for a 4 year degree. I never wanted someone to pay all my bills for me, just education expenses. If you treat it like a scholarship and use some of the discipline that you hopefully learned in whatever branch you served in, you will be fine, even without the new GI BILL

    February 4, 2009 10:46 pm at 10:46 pm |
  10. pencils for sale

    Thanks to guys like MATT HERE,the VA doesnt work because its underfunded and understaffed.lying and half truth is a hard habit to break isnt it Matt?

    February 4, 2009 10:52 pm at 10:52 pm |
  11. Rae

    These guys have been getting a raw deal for a long time. We need to do better.

    February 4, 2009 10:55 pm at 10:55 pm |
  12. pencils for sale

    Bush did nothing for the Vets other than use them for photo OPS.He said we cant give them too much because they will want to leave early .Remember that line?

    February 4, 2009 11:02 pm at 11:02 pm |
  13. Irwin Smith

    What about us of the Korean War Era? When I tried to place a radiation exposure claim from the Nevada test (1953) that went array, I was told " sorry, your records burned in the St. Louis fire" . Was that a coincidence or a convenience? So what I am saying is that this backlog did not just occur recently.

    July 11, 2012 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
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