Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki dismissed the urgent plea for "big brain" ideas from outside the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of the agency's routine efforts to better itself during a congressional hearing Monday.
But VA experienced a "Washington moment" when an email sent to top executives calling for ideas to eliminate the backlog of disability claims at the agency was revealed in an exclusive story last week in The Washington Examiner, said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Isakson's comment came during a Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing on VA's budget. (See the comment in the video clip embedded above.)
The email from Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits, stressed that big ideas were needed in "short order." The March 30 plea, sent on a Saturday morning to more than 20 top VA executives, asked them to pull together big thinkers who could recommend ways to eliminate the long waits veterans face when they file claims for disability payments related to service-connected illnesses and injuries.
"This sort of fits our always looking for a better way to do what we are doing to address the needs of veterans," Shinseki said when asked about the Hickey memo by Isakson.
The memo comes amid growing impatience on Capitol Hill and elsewhere with VA's inability to bring wait times down. About 70 percent of the disability and pension claims awaiting a rating decision by VA have lingered past 125 days, the point at which the agency considers them "backlogged."
In 2009, when Shinseki took office, it took an average of 161 days for VA to make an initial rating decision on a claim. It now takes more than 286 days.
More than 1 million veterans have claims and appeals pending at the agency.
The Hickey memo asked for help in bringing together "in very rapid fashion a group of brilliant and experienced thinkers from inside and outside VA to put everything on the table for ideas we can do to eliminate the backlog in short order."
Hickey stressed "I need to do this very quickly," adding she wanted to meet with the idea people within a week or two.
Hickey, who spoke after Shinseki, said the sense of urgency in the email is nothing out of the ordinary for her department, the Veterans Benefits Administration.
"Probably, if you saw every other email in my box, you'll see we've got an urgency at VBA no matter what we're doing to do a much better job by our veterans, their family members and their survivors," Hickey said.
Neither Isakson nor anyone else on the committee pressed Shinseki or Hickey for details about other previous attempts to bring together a group like the one described in her email.
Several committee members expressed skepticism when Shinseki reiterated VA is on track to eliminate the backlog by 2015. Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked Shinseki whether there were any benchmarks that would show positive progress.
"What reason do we have to believe that you are in fact going to be able to successfully undertake that transformation and meet the ambitious goals that you've established?" Sanders asked.
"It is difficult for the average person to believe VA is making progress when we continue to see the unacceptably long wait times faced by veterans," Sanders said.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on the committee, said the benchmarks VA officials set in documents as recently as three months ago have already changed.
"These fluctuating predictions together with a history of missed milestones and deteriorating performance make it extremely difficult to believe that VA has the backlog situation under control," Burr said.
"The lack of consistent prediction and a lack of transparency lead me to question the VA's stewardship of taxpayer money," he said.
Shinseki refused to answer a reporter's questions after the hearing.
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.