Veterans groups expressed skepticism Thursday that the Department of Veterans Affairs will meet its pledge to break its backlog of disability and pension claims by 2015.
During testimony before a joint hearing of the House and Senate veterans committees, representatives of several service organizations cited the long delays their members face for resolution of disability claims among their top concerns.
More than a million veterans seeking benefits they earned through military service have claims or appeals pending at VA. Many will wait years for a final decision on whether they qualify for monthly benefits because of service-related illnesses or injuries.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki vowed four years ago that all claims would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. That is unlikely, said Tom Tarantino, deputy policy director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
The problem has gotten worse since Shinseki made his pledge, with the time it takes to process a claim going from about five months to about nine months in the last four years.
About 70 percent of all pending claims currently linger past that deadline, according to agency figures. Promises to break the backlog have come and gone for years, Tarantino said.
"At some point, where do we see the turning point?" Tarantino said when asked whether he believes the backlog will be gone in two years.
"I've been hearing for five years 'we're working on the problem.' I'm starting to feel like Charlie Brown and the football here. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter until you see the results. And frankly, my membership is sick and tired of hearing that it's getting fixed and not seeing any results," he said.
A recent investigation by The Washington Examiner showed much of the backlog is of the VA's own making, with pressure to move cases quickly contributing to mistakes that doom veterans to years-long waits as they try to correct errors through appeals.
Earlier this week, Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Mike Michaud, D-Maine, the chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told The Washington Examiner that chronically poor performing VA workers and supervisors need to be fired.
The agency's current practice is normally to leave them in place or transfer them to other offices, they said.
"We've got to get past that culture of not getting rid of those who can't do the job," Miller said during the hearing Thursday.
Other veterans' representatives cited poor-performing staff as a problem in many of the VA's regional offices, but were not as blunt as Miller as to what needs to happen to them.
Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers' Association of America, said personnel problems at the VA are contributing to the long waits veterans face to have claims processed.
"A part of this dynamic has to do with recruiting, training and retaining a high-quality workforce," Norton said. "The regional offices that are failing in this business are the ones that have personnel problems and that, we believe, is not being fully addressed by the VA at this time."
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.