LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Tuesday dismissed criticisms leveled at him over the disability claims backlog and said he stuck by the decisions that caused the claims backlog to grow since 2010.
Shinseki, speaking before the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Louisville, Ky., said the backlog is "the reason I agreed to continue my service as secretary."
"We said all along it would take time to solve this correctly," he said, "and we're not going to leave this for another secretary or another president to wrestle with. The President wants this fixed and we are on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015."
Shinseki said the backlog -- claims still awaiting a decision 125 days after being filed -- is currently about 515,000, down from 600,000 earlier this year. He said he testified before Congress nearly four years ago that the backlog would grow larger before it would start shrinking.
The backlog increased following the addition of three new illnesses to the list of conditions the VA links to wartime Agent Orange exposure, and ramping up efforts to reach veterans of past wars in need of care for post-traumatic stress disorder.
When he made these decisions, however, Shinseki also directed the VA to prioritize the claims applications of the older veterans and dedicated a sizeable portion of the department's claims processors to handle the new workload.
The action caused claims of many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to pile up. Over the past year Shinseki has been publicly slammed over the backlog, most visibly by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Joe Klein, a columnist for Time magazine, wrote that Shinseki should resign or be fired. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have regularly questioned his effectiveness and expressed skepticism that he could meet the 2015 goal.
But the VFW, as well as The American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans, have supported Shinseki's decisions. And though the veterans' service organizations all want to see the backlog tamed quickly they have also rejected placing the blame on Shinseki.
Shinseki's decisions to add heart disease, Parkinson's disease and leukemia to the list of "presumptive" for Agent Orange has come under fire recently by former VA Secretary Anthony Principi, who argues that those and other illnesses on the list now claimed by aged veterans are just as likely the result of old age.
Shinseki has not publicly addressed Principi's argument, but told the VFW he stands by his actions.
"It was the right thing to do then. It is the right thing to do now, and I'd make the same decisions over again," he said.
In a statement released after Shinseki's speech, IAVA Chief of Staff Derek Bennett said the organization appreciates that the VA implemented a series of steps that have reduced the backlog.
"This surge from the VA clearly has made a difference," Bennett said. "But with hundreds of thousands of veterans still in the backlog, we must know if this surge is sustainable and if it will translate to lasting change."
IAVA has been calling for months for a presidential commission to tackle the backlog problem, and Bennett reiterated that again on Tuesday.
"It is long past time for President Obama to speak directly to veterans about how his administration will bring the VA disability claims backlog to an end," he said.