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VA head envisions big improvements in backlog

Nov. 11, 2012 - 11:13AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 11, 2012 - 11:13AM  |  
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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki vows that major improvements are just over the horizon for veterans seeking benefits and health care.

The 69-year-old retired four-star general and former Army chief of staff said in an interview that he knows veterans are frustrated by a complicated and lengthy disability claims process and by problems accessing VA's health care system, but changing a large organization takes time.

He has ambitious goals: eliminating the claims backlog and homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, he is expanding access to VA health care and improving programs for female veterans and for veterans in rural areas.

And while he doesn't have an implementation date, he also talks of launching an aggressive mental health program in which VA clinicians would review the medical records of separating veterans to look for evidence of problems that could be early indicators of suicide risk.

Calling the incidence of suicide among current and former service members "unacceptable," Shinseki said his plan calls for better anticipating who is at risk and contacting them to see if they are interested in a mental health evaluation or treatment.

When, exactly, this will happen is unclear because it depends on the Defense Department and VA completing a long, complicated process to provide an electronic copy of military medical records to VA as someone leaves the military.

Efforts to devise a seamless electronic records system have been a lengthy, thorny problem filled with complications, but Shinseki believes the technical issues have been resolved.

The most attention-getting problem at VA has been the large and growing number of pending benefit claims. About 900,000 claims are pending before VA, including almost 600,000 waiting for 125 days or more.

Although it's a hard sell to Congress and veterans groups as they watch the number of pending benefits claims rise year after year, Shinseki said VA is doing better.

He noted that VA completed about 900,000 claims in 2009 and about 1 million a year in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The problem is that more claims are arriving each year, preventing more significant progress. In 2012, for example, VA received about 1.3 million claims, he said.

"In four years, we put 3.9 million claims out the door, but we have more coming in," he said.

Progress on cutting the backlog depends on how fast a fully electronic processing system can be deployed, as well as the number of claims received, he said. Shinseki said there is a chance of real progress in 2013.

"I'm told the number of claims received may be peaking," he said. "There is a chance we will put out more than we receive."

Getting out to meet VA employees and veterans is a high priority for Shinseki.

"I learned in the Army you cannot sit in Washington with a 1,000-mile or 2,000-mile screwdriver trying to fine-tune things out there in the field," Shinseki said. "You are much better off going out there."

In his almost four years heading VA, the second-largest federal agency next to the Defense Department, Shinseki said he has made it a point to regularly visit facilities.

"I passed the 50-state mark some time ago," he said. "While I haven't been to every facility, I have seen facilities in each state."

He acknowledged that many veterans want VA to react faster but said he has found that transforming VA into a modern agency and changing the culture of its employees is a daunting task.

"Saying you have a vision for the future and getting people to share in it is hard work," he said. "Change is the most difficult thing any organization has to do, and when you use the word ‘transformation,' it is bigger than just change.

"It isn't modernization, it isn't changing a set of leaders or changing an office. It is comprehensive and fundamental. We are into the guts of how we do our business: Is it effective, is it efficient, are people being held accountable?" he said.

"I have asked people to be bold, and I think we have moved faster in the last two years than the organization I previously served with in the business of transforming," he said, referring to the Army, where he had a 38-year career.

While changing VA culture is challenging, Shinseki noted that he has some experience with cultural change in large organizations.

"Try putting a black beret on the head of a soldier," he said, referring to a decision he made as Army chief of staff to make berets standard headgear for soldiers, a move that launched a massive controversy.

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