Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said today during his first national TV news interview in four years that it is "unacceptable" for former U.S. military service members to wait as long as they do for their disability benefits claims to be resolved.
Despite an ever-growing backlog of unfinished claims, Shinseki said on CNN's "State of the Union" program that VA is on track to eliminate the backlog by 2015.
"No veteran should have to wait for claims, as they are today," Shinseki said during the 12-minute interview. "We have a fix for this. We are open for business and we will end the backlog in 2015."
Veterans seeking compensation for service-related injuries and illnesses typically wait an average of nine months to get an initial rating on their claims, which determines if they are entitled to monthly stipends and, if so, how much. In many regional offices, the average wait is longer than a year.
More than a million veterans current have cases stuck in the system and their numbers are steadily growing.
Shinseki has vowed since 2009 that all claims will be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. But things have gotten dramatically worse since he made that pledge.
Four years ago, it took about 161 days to process an initial claim. Today, it takes about 279 days. The accuracy rate for resolved claims has been stagnant at about 86 percent for the past five years.
The Washington Examiner's recent series - Making America's Heroes Wait - exposed multiple ways in which VA employees manipulate claims data to make it appear more are being processed properly more quickly than is actually the case.
The series also examined a long-running pattern spanning multiple presidential administrations of VA officials promising new programs and reforms and assuring Congress and veterans groups that the department's problems will soon be fixed.
The VA processes about a million claims per year, but is unable to keep up with the influx of new cases being filed, Shinseki said. The agency has also had to contend with an influx of service members returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
While those veterans are entitled to VA medical care for five years after leaving the service, they must still apply for disability benefits through normal channels.
Shinseki said their cases are complex, with a typical veteran having multiple conditions that must be reviewed.
Veterans of the last decade of war account for about 20 percent of all pending cases at VA, and about 22 percent of those that have stretched beyond 125 days, according to testimony last week from Allison Hickey, VA's under secretary of benefits.
The biggest single group of veterans seeking benefits are those who served in the Vietnam era, who make up about 37 percent of all pending claims.
The backlog was made worse in 2010 when the agency recognized service connection for a variety of ailments caused by exposure to the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange, Shinseki said.
A quarter-million Agent Orange cases were completed a year ago. Waits have gotten worse since then, taking about a month longer today.
Shinseki pinned his hopes for finally breaking the backlog of claims on VA's $537 million computer system, which is designed to enable claims processors to access documents electronically rather than using paper files.
The new system is operating in about 20 regional offices and is supposed to be fully deployed throughout the country at the department's 57 such facilities by the end of the year, he said.
Candy Crowley, the CNN host who interviewed Shinseki, did not ask him about recent calls to shake up the top tiers of VA. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans committee, called for Hickey's removal last week.
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.