CINCINNATI -- Speaking to thousands of veterans at the American Legion National Convention here on Wednesday, VA Secretary Robert McDonald submitted a plea: Urge Congress to enact a plan to modernize the "archaic" appeals process and keep more veterans from slipping through the cracks.
While the Department of Veterans Affairs backlog has been slashed nearly 90 percent from a peak of 611,000 claims more than 125 days old in the last several years, McDonald said, some half-million veterans still await decisions on a claims appeal.
If no action is taken, he added, that number will soar by 179 percent over the next decade, with nearly 1.3 million veterans to be stuck in the appeals process by 2027.
"Last year, the board was adjudicating an appeal from 25 years ago," McDonald said. With input from veterans' service organizations and others, the VA shaped a plan that would create a "simplified, streamlined and fair appeals process," he said.
The reform plan would create multiple appeals "lanes" for veterans to streamline the process, including quicker disposition options. Some have raised concerns about how the reforms will address the nearly 500,000 already in the appeals pipeline who are not grandfathered into the new process in the VA proposal. McDonald said, however, that enacting the proposal would be efficient, and doing nothing would have significant consequences for veterans.
"In five years, we could have appeals resolved within one year of filing. The legislation costs nothing and it will be even more efficient and less costly over time," McDonald said. "What's the alternative? More resources going to a broken system. Veterans waiting 10 years for a decision on their appeal. That's unacceptable to me."
McDonald also urged Congress to pass the full amount of the funding request in the president's 2017 budget proposal, which was largely approved by the Senate, but was trimmed back by some $1.5 billion in the version passed by the House. The president's budget, he said, contained more than 100 legislative proposals, a number of which will allow the VA to purchase outside health care and give veterans access to community care programs in 2017.
The House budget, McDonald said, "will hurt veterans and it will impede the critical initiatives we need to transform the VA into the high-performing organization you deserve."
Ahead of his address to the American Legion, McDonald sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, urging them to act on the proposals and saying the VA was at a "critical tipping point" in transformation and improvement. The House and Senate return to Capitol Hill on Tuesday after a monthlong recess.
Internally, the VA continues to clean house, McDonald said, with 3,755 employees terminated over the last two years as the department aims to eradicate systemic delay and other complaints. This announcement elicited a cheer from the veterans at the convention.
But McDonald strongly defended the VA's work, denouncing "embellished and recycled" media accounts that highlighted the worst of the organization's failures.
"Our employees are good people. I'm proud of them. No, they're not all perfect, but it's a gross misrepresentation to cherry-pick the worst and hold them up as if they represent every VA employee," he said. It's a distortion that sells papers, but it's a distortion that hurts veterans and hurts the good people caring for them."