A desperate plea for new ideas on how the Department of Veterans Affairs can end the steadily lengthening waits that face veterans filing disability benefits claims was shrugged off as part of the agency's routine outreach to outsiders by a VA spokesman Friday.
A VA statement to The Washington Examiner does not explicitly say there are no plans for a presidential commission to address the issue, something that has been requested by some veterans groups and members of Congress. But it does characterize the email from Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits, as standard outreach.
"Under-Secretary Hickey's March 30th email was part of a multi-year, ongoing effort begun in 2009 to continuously seek good ideas from VA's workforce, interagency groups, Veterans Service Organizations, and other concerned stakeholders to help us end the backlog," the two-paragraph written statement from a VA spokesman says.
"We take seriously our responsibility to constantly seek feedback from our stakeholders and incorporate ideas that provide Veterans the benefits they've earned and deserve," the statement said.
The spokesman did not respond to requests for clarification or more information.
The Washington Examiner exclusively reported Thursday that Hickey circulated a high-importance email to about 20 top agency executives March 30 - a Saturday morning - in which she outlined plans to build a "big brain" group of experts who could help break the claims backlog.
She twice used the phrase "short order" in expressing the urgency of assembling the group of "big idea" people and hearing their solutions.
About 70 percent of the disability claims at VA have lingered beyond the 125-day deadline at which they are considered "backlogged" by the agency.
It takes about 10 months to get an initial rating on a disability claim, which determines whether the veteran is entitled to compensation for service-connected injuries or illnesses and, if so, how much. In many regional offices, the waits are more than a year.
Critics of the VA's slow pace were not impressed by Hickey's plea.
"As much as input is needed and helpful, there firsts needs to be willingness on the part of VA's leadership, starting with the Secretary, to acknowledge there's a problem," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who this week became the first member of Congress to call for the removal of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"And it can't be an exercise in outreach to create good optics. Problems at VA didn't happen overnight, so as much as new ideas are needed, with some real outside the box thinking, a change in leadership should be the first order of business," Hunter wrote.
Hunter, a combat veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, characterized Shinseki, himself a retired Army general, as an honorable man who has failed to fulfill his mission in an op-ed published in the Washington Post Wednesday.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said VA officials need to do something different and that bringing in outsiders for advice is a good step.
"If we're going to make progress, we're going to have to think outside the box and try something new," Michaud said. "This issue is just too important to too many veterans to allow the status quo to continue."
Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and director of veterans' outreach at the law firm Bergmann & Moore, said Hickey's call for help is a welcome gesture.
Sullivan is listed in Hickey's memo as one of the people who should be consulted for ideas, but said he has not been contacted for help by VA.
"I don't know if it's a response to the press or the veterans' groups or just the fact that (VA) has a very large inventory of incomplete claims," Sullivan said. "It's a recognition that there is a very serious claims delay and error crisis."