Koons: VA benefits backlogs is shameful

BY GUEST COLUMN | APRIL 12, 2013 5:00 AM

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While President Obama certainly needs to manage politics in order to get his priorities passed, being president is more than just being politician-in-chief. The president is the nation’s leader. While a leader must provide a vision that energizes and provides others direction, leaders must also ensure effectiveness of execution.

Regardless of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s grand design for New York City, his credibility nearly crumbled when the city was buried under snow that couldn’t be plowed in a reasonable amount of time.

If Bloomberg hadn’t figured out how to eventually solve the problem, he would have been remembered as being defeated by snow. Obama faces a similar situation now with Veterans Affairs’ inability to handle their benefit-claim backlog.

Obama’s ideas have supporters and detractors, but his grand designs are immaterial if he cannot, after a time, ensure a minimal effectiveness by his federal agencies. Effectiveness of execution is Obama’s responsibility as leader, a responsibility that transcends politics.

The VA had the same backlog problem under President Bush, though it wasn’t as egregious then as it is now that the majority of the veterans from Bush’s two wars are returning home.

The problem wasn’t fixed under Bush, and that is an indictment of the effectiveness, when the rubber hit the road, of his leadership. Another indictment of Bush’s effectiveness was his handling of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster exacerbated by a managerial catastrophe. Obama realized that history would scrutinize and compare his handling of super-storm Sandy with Bush’s handling of Katrina, so Obama made sure to get ahead of any potential issues and ordered all federal red tape cut.

Now, it’s time for Obama to come to the same realization regarding the VA. Currently, veterans wait an average of 300 days before their benefits claims are even opened. Some veterans in large cities wait two or three times longer. After their claims are opened, they may be denied and require appeals — which requires more waiting. When asked, the VA has a lot of explanations for the shameful wait.

For example, officials didn’t anticipate the rapid increase in claims over the decade even though the nation fought two wars, claims are increasingly complex, and more than 90 percent of the VA’s claims are still paper and cannot be handled as efficiently as electronic records.

Obama needs to realize that if he doesn’t want the history books to include an asterisk by his name with the note that thousands of wounded American heroes waited upwards to a year for their earned benefits under his presidency, then he needs to focus the nation’s attention and energy on this problem. Obama may not directly supervise daily VA operations, but he is responsible for them.

The captain that Obama put in charge of the VA can’t seem to right the ship, so Obama must step in. Let’s hope Obama is too intelligent to fail to understand that leaders’ vision is quickly forgotten if they cannot first make sure the basics are done well.

Andy Koons
Daily Iowan guest columnist

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