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January / February 2009

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VETERANS BENEFITS COMMITTEE REPORT

It’s Time To Clean House

BY JERRY KLEIN, CHAIR

The latest scandal that has engulfed the Veterans Benefits Administration only confirms my belief that a complete revamping of that troubled segment of the Department of Veterans Affairs is long overdue. An article by John W. Allman of the Tampa Tribune highlights the fact that nearly 500 benefit claims records were set to be destroyed, shredded.

VA Regional Offices in Cleveland; St. Louis; Columbia, South Carolina; St. Petersburg, Florida; Detroit; and Waco, Texas, have been identified as offices of concern. It is obvious that controls were not in place to protect applicants from the possibility that applications for veterans’ benefits would be properly processed, let alone processed at all.

Although the managers have recently instituted new procedures to protect applicants by ensuring that documents are not shredded, it may have arrived too late. We don’t know if any records were actually destroyed. A complete review at all VA Regional Offices must be undertaken to ensure that no application was destroyed. However, we may never know the answer since a paper trail may not exist.

In a system that doesn’t hold anyone responsible for actions that harm veterans, the time has come to clean house. As the Obama administration takes over, veterans will see a change in the top leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs. However, that cosmetic change is not enough. Mid-level managers in the Veterans Benefits Administration must be held accountable for establishing a culture within the department that treats veterans as an enemy unworthy of receiving benefits. A top-to-bottom analysis must be undertaken and even career employees should not be exempt from dismissal.

The Under Secretary for Veterans Benefits, the Director of the Compensation and Pension Service, their deputies, and staff must be held accountable for decisions that they have recommended to senior staff that have established a perception of being anti-veteran. The overreaching desire to privatize functions of the department by providing lucrative contracts to companies that are only interested in receiving government dollars may ultimately harm veterans and undermine the ability of the VA to deliver comprehensive medical, psychological, and benefit services to our nations’ veterans.

I was informed that the VA has proposed a plan to consolidate the processing of claims for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and Pensions into selected Regional Offices. Those offices are St. Paul, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. The effect of this proposed rule would mean that if a claim were filed in Florida, the claims file would be sent to Philadelphia. The service officers in Florida would not have access to the file, nor would they be able to advocate for the client. If the service organization doesn’t have a staff person in those Regional Offices, it would be unable to intervene effectively if problems arose.

Once again the individuals who are sworn to protect the men and women who have served our nation have found another way to make it more difficult for veterans to gain access to the Veterans Benefits system. This proposal is unacceptable. The VA staff that formulated this proposal must be dismissed from government service.

Last but not least, Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake stated in an interview on PBS’s News Hour on November 10 that veterans’ suicides are the result of “the same kinds of issues that have to do with suicides in the general population. It is issues of failed relationships, senses of hopelessness, transitions in life, that are the root cause.... We’re not making a direct correlation with combat.” Secretary Peake is completely out of touch with what has happened to the men and women who serve our nation. They are looking for help from the very organization that devalues their service .

 

 

 

 

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