A key lawmaker on Tuesday repeated his call for the resignation of Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, who he believes is largely responsible of the failure of the agency to get its claims backlog under control.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, met on Tuesday with representatives from about 30 veterans groups. The meeting, which was closed to the public, was also attended by nearly 15 members of Congress.
Most of the roundtable meeting dealt with the backlog and how to fix it, according to Marty Callaghan, a spokesman for The American Legion, one of the veterans' service organizations that attended.
"We focused on the VA regional offices -- and we have said this time and again -- that some real problems exist at some of [these] when it comes to processing claims," Callaghan said. Like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans, the Legion has trained service officers able to assist veterans in filing and following up on their claims applications.
"We're suggesting members of Congress and VA central office leadership need to go out there to these regional offices and see what our Legion officers are dealing with," he said.
Based on the observations of another veterans' group member in attendance, the veterans' committee chairman sees a bigger problem in Washington. It is clear that Miller still believes Hickey's departure from the VA is part of any solution.
"He feels she needs to go. He was pretty adamant about it," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Military.com on Wednesday. "I think it was a venting of frustrations … but I think there was nothing discussed by Miller that he had not said publicly."
Miller first called for Hickey's ouster in March. He said at the time that the backlog is only getting worse, and that the VA needs someone new to help develop a realistic plan for tackling the problem. The size of the backlog -- those claims not acted on within 125 days -- has been put as high as 900,000; in some parts of the country the wait time can be as long as 600 days.
In late March, Hickey fired off a memo to about 20 senior VA executives in which she asked for names "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."
The Hickey memo was first reported in The Washington Examiner on April 11.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, when asked about the memo during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Monday, rejected a suggestion by one lawmaker that it seemed to contradict Hickey's earlier testimony that VA was getting the backlog under control.
"This is something we have been doing for three years, going out and getting the best minds to come in and help us -- inside VA, outside VA -- casting a broad net. … [We're] always looking for a better way to do what we're doing," Shinseki told Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Miller led the roundtable days after the White House hosted a roundtable of its own headed by White House chief of staff Denis McDonough in a show of support for Shinseki and VA leadership.
"The president views this as national problem," McDonough said during a roundtable he hosted along with Shinseki for a number of national media organizations including Military.com at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building April 5. "Everyone with claims expertise -- whether it's the IRS, HUD, HHS -- is expected to support Rick [Secretary Shinseki] in the fight [to end the backlog]."