It was more than surprising — actually shocking — to discover the latest woe that has befallen thousands of America’s military veterans trying to appeal disability benefits claims that were initially rejected by Department of Veterans Affairs adjudicators.
Not only are veterans’ appeals languishing in a growing backlog that has clogged the special court that was created as their last resort, but one big reason for the backlog is the failure of the Obama White House to nominate candidates for one-third of the court’s judgeships.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is allotted nine judges — but three of the judgeships are vacant — and have been for more than a year. Meanwhile, the caseload has nearly doubled since the attacks of 9/11 — from 2,442 appeals in 2000 to 4,725 in 2009. Just six judges decide all those cases.
What is happening — or in this case, not happening — at the overburdened U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is a classic case study of how Washington really works. Or, how Washington really doesn’t work the way the folks at the top think it is working.
For example, picture yourself occupying the comfortable chair in the room with no corners at
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. You have given speeches committing yourself to all the right things. As when you stood at the Yongsan Army Garrison in South Korea in November and told 1,400 troops: “I want all of you to know when you come home your country is going to be there for you. That is the commitment I make to you as commander-in-chief. That is the sacred trust between the United States of America and all who defend its ideals.”
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, given his mission by his president, has made a number of significant improvements in the VA process. But while some big program changes were being properly trumpeted, we don’t know if the president was even aware that his White House has made the problem worse by failing to fill three vacancies in the court’s nine judgeships.
Frankly, while I’d like to report to you how I unearthed that major fact, it wasn’t my scoop. All I did was unearth it buried 207 words deep in an otherwise fine, front-page Washington Post report a few weeks ago about the growing backlog of the veterans appeals court. When I asked a White House spokesperson why the vacancies haven’t been filled, all I got was a standard reply that they were working on it and “we expect to announce those nominees in the near future.”
The really big change that President Barack Obama and Shinseki still need to make to honor our “sacred trust” with our veterans is to change the VA mindset that has developed over decades. Too often, the VA has seemed to be anti-veteran.
As I reported in my 2008 book, “Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles,” it has often seemed VA stands for “Veterans Adversaries.” I’ve chronicled cases in which VA adjudicators rejected veterans’ claims, and vets waited for years, even decades before initial VA rejections were overturned by appeals judges.
Shamefully, more than 13,000 vets have died awaiting appeals to be decided. Most recently, the veterans appeals court found for the appealing veterans and overturned or remanded back for new consideration the VA’s rejections of 2,651 veterans’ claims. In other words, the court found for the veteran and against the VA more than half the time.
What Obama and Shinseki need to do most of all is change the mindset at the VA — by instilling a sense that this is the Department of Veterans Advocates.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.