06/19/2013 05:34 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

The Dysfunction That Is Veterans Affairs

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.
These are just a few examples of the corruption, incompetence and poor management at VA. There are many others. (The Center for Investigative Reporting [CIR] has conducted a series of fearless and hard-hitting exposés of VA's disastrous administration, if you want to read more. I highly recommend them.) It all paints a picture of a federal agency that is dysfunctional at its core, failing in its core mission of service and sorely in need of new leadership to push for real transformation. I've argued that the president should replace VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, to send a message of accountability up and down the ranks. I still believe that's a necessary step to reforming this systemically dysfunctional department. And the fact is that VA isn't going to change on its own. It's up to veterans' advocacy organizations like Concerned Veterans for America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America; member of Congress from both parties who have held VA officials' feet to the fire; and media outlets like CIR, the Washington Examiner and The Daily Show, all of which have kept a steady spotlight on VA's failings. So my advice to veterans and their supporters is this: Keep up the pressure, because we can force change at VA. In fact, I'd even argue that our efforts thus far have borne fruit -- but we can't stop now. Because we know that our veterans deserve better than what they're currently getting from VA bureaucracy. Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. On Thursday, June 20, 2013, CVA will host a panel presentation in Washington, D.C., focusing on proposals for VA reform. Click here to register or watch streaming video from the event.