February 4th, 2009
06:00 PM ET
13 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. EC

    Wow.... someone with some common sense. Washington has been stuck deep in this "do nothing" mentality for FAR too long. I bet if we totaled up all the WASTED SHUFFLING OF PAPERWORK in the Federal Government, we could used the BILLIONS to dig our country out of this economic hell hole that we are sinking in!!

    If the Obama Administration tightens up and cleans up a lot of the waste going on in Washington, America won't need a stimulus package!

    We must start somewhere, and this is a start.

    February 4, 2009 06:57 pm at 6:57 pm |
  2. FreeNLovIt

    Sounds so government!

    February 4, 2009 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  3. Voter

    What were they doing during the Bush years? I thought Bush was so devoted to getting vets their due.

    I guess he didn't think they due so much after all.

    February 4, 2009 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  4. CMG

    With all due respect, paperwork is a very small part of the problem.

    February 4, 2009 07:18 pm at 7:18 pm |
  5. Ula Nejad Sacramento, Ca

    Morons! They're veterans. Why does decisions have to be so difficult. A systematic format that does not need alot of... umm...okay....so.... Give them the help they need and set a time limit of 5 years and extension accordingly for rehab.

    February 4, 2009 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  6. thomas

    When it comes to the neglect of the Bush administration, there is no end in sight.

    February 4, 2009 07:22 pm at 7:22 pm |
  7. BB

    I need a job, and I know how to sort, file, prioritize, type, program a computer, answer phones, etc.

    Why not hire a few good people to help get this mess straightened out at the local VAs? It might make a difference.

    February 4, 2009 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  8. Thanks Veterans!

    Every American enjoys their freedom today in so many ways due to a veteran.

    Give Shinseki the funding he needs to immediately get this backlog of needs put in electronic format and to process all these claims ASAP.

    Congress could do this important duty by forgoing just one of their frivilous stimulus bill items....how about using some of the $600 million they were going to give for hybrid cars for gov't employees...

    February 4, 2009 07:27 pm at 7:27 pm |
  9. Dawn

    Wow we have our husbands, sons, daughters, wives, sisters etc. fighting in two freaking wars and no help from the Bush Administration. Mmmm, this sounds like 1975 all over again. We treat our Vets like crap, but wanting them to put their lives on the line. No sympathy for them. Bush cut the funding for this, just like the Nixon and Ford Administration. Take a lesson in history. They are our hero's, anyone putting their lives on the line for freedom should get the Royal Treatment. END OF STORY. This is not a right or left wing propaganda it is common sense!

    February 4, 2009 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  10. Ron Johnson

    The VA has created this backlog with its practice of denying claims by deserving veterans when it is filed for the first time. When denied, the veteran and the organization that is the advocate for the veteran has to appeal the VA's decision. Then the VA reviews the case again.

    The VA needs to stop trying to save money at the expense of the veteran and its personnel that reviews the cases. Do the right thing the first time.

    I know the way the VA handles the process. I have had to appeal their decisions for myself and numerous veterans. I have been a service officer for my VFW post for several years and I'm a diabetic (agent orange) and have to deal with PTSD ongoing. I'm now on my third appeal for these issues. Lets do it right the first time.

    February 4, 2009 07:36 pm at 7:36 pm |
  11. Ex Army Sgt

    This is one of the few generals who has been able to relate to both enlisted and officers. I honestly believe he will do the best for our veterans. I believe he collects disability himself, since part of his foot is missing.

    February 4, 2009 07:41 pm at 7:41 pm |
  12. Mari

    There is a lot of work to do in this department. Our Veterans deserve the best healthcare, the best system!

    February 4, 2009 07:47 pm at 7:47 pm |
  13. I hate Rush but.......

    As a Veteran I applaud this pick from the gutless one Obama who "thought about joining, but Vietnam was over (Look it up, his own words).

    I hope they take care of all veterans who give all you socialist bloggers the right to say what you want with no penalty for your stupidity,

    This guy can't be a tax cheat as they don't pay our heroes enough dough, but Barry's do nothing but "finally be proud of this Country wife" as soon as he became Senator received a good high paying DO NOTHING JOB.

    Ya, I am way off base here, the truth hurts..........

    One and done Barry.


    February 4, 2009 07:48 pm at 7:48 pm |
  14. Marvin

    Well, In the first place...most of the cases that are sittin on the desk are claims that should have been granted a long time ago, and should have never went through an appeal process or waiting. for solong the Veterans Affairs has been the practice of turning down veterans claims. And just recently in 2003 they set up the AMC (Veterand Appeal Managemnt Center) which in my opinion in just a sitting tank for appeals to sit for another 3-5 years while the big shot lawyers find way to amend current CFR regulations that make it harder for veterans to qualify for benifits or make criteria for certain disabilities harder to qualify for. I just home the new VA Secretarty means what he says....cause I have a claim pending and in appeal since 1993. Most of what the VA says is Lip service.

    February 4, 2009 07:52 pm at 7:52 pm |
  15. nancy lavelle

    I do not understand why the powers in washington cannot just go back to the incentives that we had in the tax code years ago when a person could deduct the sales tax and interest on a car loan – this would give people incentive to buy a new car – and why not allow a deduction for the interest paid on credit cards (like we used to have) – this would give people incentive to spend money – keep the stimulus package and start revamping the tax code to help the working people

    February 4, 2009 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  16. Ex Air Force MSGT

    Yeah, right...same old words we've heard for years and in 4 years we'll hear it again !

    February 4, 2009 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  17. Nancy, IL

    I'm sure he'll do a fine job.

    February 4, 2009 08:11 pm at 8:11 pm |
  18. Simmy

    The backlog is the result of a lack-luster Bush administration, that cared more about taking care the "inner circle" than the average Americans.

    February 4, 2009 08:15 pm at 8:15 pm |
  19. Marvin

    Just think of all the lives that back logged claims have destroyed. Think of all the married couples that have devorced because of financial distress, all the veterans that are fathers and single that can't pay child support, the veterans credit that are distroyed because of not being able to hold down a job....the list goes on....we are talking about a epidemic problem that i don't see any media covering. I'm sure that i Speak for hundred and thousands of Veterans in this situatuion.

    February 4, 2009 08:22 pm at 8:22 pm |
  20. BB

    Hire a few Americans that work instead of sitting around chatting on personal phone calls.

    February 4, 2009 08:23 pm at 8:23 pm |

    many times the models exist, its just we don't follow it

    February 4, 2009 08:27 pm at 8:27 pm |
  22. Texas Teacher

    ....and the VA? Pffft they are the pits! Ill veterans waiting for hours for the least amount of care... then they wait more hours to pick up their prescriptions. Then the side effects of the prescriptions are so severe that they cut their lives short!

    And the medical and pharmecutical companies will fight universal health care tooth and nail! And why not? It will surely cut into their profits! I pray that Obama and company can fight that tooth and nail!

    February 4, 2009 08:53 pm at 8:53 pm |
  23. Texas Teacher

    Our whole medical system is geared to making insurance companies rich... and it has been working just fine. Doctors demand tests of the Elderly that they do not need... and they want exactly when the insurance companies or medicare will permit! And then conversely, the insurance companies tell doctors and hospitals what and when they can do whatever. I find it disgusting.

    February 4, 2009 08:54 pm at 8:54 pm |
  24. Perusing-through


    Like most federal administrations that are loathe by the GOP, the Veterans Administration was allowed to go under-funded and ineffective during Bush's eight years in office. The Republican Party hates federal administrations like FEMA, EPA, FDA, CDC, SSA, and have long tried to abolish them. So it is no surprise General Eric Shinseki has discovered a mess.

    February 4, 2009 08:55 pm at 8:55 pm |
  25. Tracy M.

    How can I volunteer to help? Our veterans deserve better. Faster.

    February 4, 2009 08:57 pm at 8:57 pm |
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