If you follow news reports about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), you know the department has come in for some rough weather in recent months. As the number of veterans with pending and backlogged VA compensation claims mounted, critics from across the political spectrum piled on. I know this because I've been one of those critics. But perhaps you also notice a change in tone recently, as VA reportedly is making progress in reducing the backlogged claims. The total claims pending now are about 841,000, with more than 554,000 having waited more than 125 days. When VA officials told a Senate committee last week they'd reached a "tipping point" in handling backlogged claims, why, you could practically hear the sounds of champagne corks popping over at the department HQ on Vermont Avenue. Pardon me if I'm not yet prepared to join the celebration. Don't get me wrong -- if VA is finally reducing the mountain of waiting claims, as has been suggested, that would be good news for veterans. The agency's self-reported statistics are promising -- but of course, if there's one lesson we've learned from the Obama administration in recent months, it's that any information provided by a federal agency is likely to be less than reliable and subject to later revision (as we've seen in the ongoing IRS scandal). And for the moment, we'll lay aside the question of whether VA should really be too proud about the fact that they've "only" got 554,000 backlogged claims. So let's say we can be cautiously optimistic that VA may at long last be making progress at more effectively responding to veterans' needs. But the numbers tell only part of the story, and the potential good news is counterbalanced by the well-documented dysfunction throughout the agency. I'm talking about dysfunction such as the following:
- In October 2012, the VA inspector general issued a bombshell report detailing wasteful and unaccountable spending on employee training conferences at luxury resorts in Florida. The report detailed a pattern of waste and ethical lapses, including VA employees receiving illegal gifts from contractors. The day before the report was issued, VA's top resources official resigned in disgrace.
- We've recently learned of computer breaches on VA data systems containing veterans' personal data, suggesting a haphazard approach to security;
- The VA inspector general found an estimated 2.2 billion in improper payments in Fiscal Year 2012 alone, owing to sloppy financial controls;
- Questionable conditions at VA facilities are a continuing theme, as found in a recent Congressional inquiry into a 2011-2012 outbreak of Legionnaire's disease at a Pittsburgh VA hospital, and in a March report that a VA facility in Mississippi was plagued by poor sterilization procedures and chronic under-staffing; and
- Last month, an investigative report with the Washington Examiner revealed that the department had paid millions of dollars in bonuses to VA executives even as the backlog mounted.