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WASHINGTON – Concerned about broken promises of assistance for the nation’s veterans, Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, called today for the head of the agency’s benefits administration to resign.
Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, is scheduled to testify before Miller’s committee on Wednesday morning about the chronic delays encountered by veterans awaiting disability benefits. In a Capitol Hill interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting this morning, Miller cited a lack of transparency, lengthening delays and a number of veterans disability claims that the VA projects will soon pass 1 million as reasons Hickey should step down.
“I don’t think she’s equipped to handle the problems that exist out there,” said Miller, a Florida Republican. “I think she is overwhelmed, and I would call for a replacement.”
The call for Hickey’s resignation falls during a week of remembrance in Washington, marking the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War.
In a statement, VA spokesman Joshua Taylor said the agency agreed that “too many veterans are waiting too long for their benefits,” but said that Hickey would stay on to implement an “aggressive plan to fix the backlog.”
Miller’s comments came a week after CIR revealed the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their disability claims had increased by more than 2,000 percent under President Barack Obama – from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December.
The report was based on internal VA documents that have not been provided to Congress – or the public. The documents also showed that veterans filing their first claim, including those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, wait more than 315 days on average. In major metropolitan areas, those veterans are waiting nearly two years for an answer.
By 2015, Taylor said, virtually no veterans will wait more than four months for their benefits – a promise the VA has continued to make even as trends slid in the opposite direction.
Veterans advocates cast doubt on the sincerity of that vow, a concern one group of veterans is planning to bring directly to the White House on Wednesday. Dozens of members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in Washington this week will ask members of Congress to sign a petition demanding Obama create a presidential commission charged with eliminating the backlog.
Some advocates said they would welcome a change at the top of the VA benefits administration.
“When you have a company, any company, that doesn’t perform, you fire the CEO,” said Shad Meshad, a former Vietnam War combat medic and head of the National Veterans Foundation, based in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles office, which serves veterans from Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo to the Orange County line, is among the urban claims centers with the worst track record. The VA’s internal documents show the average wait time for veterans filing their first claim there is 619 days.
Since 2009, the year that Obama took office, the number of Los Angeles-area veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits has increased from 156 to nearly 14,000, the documents show.
“We tell veterans don’t shoot yourself, don’t shoot your wife, just stick with it and we’ll see what we can do while you wait two years for your benefits,” Meshad said of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans he counsels. “The system sucks.”
Miller said he would be presenting his own documents at Wednesday’s hearing, showing that VA worker productivity has declined each year during the Obama presidency. He said he would ask Hickey about the declining productivity and ask her to consider firing poorly performing managers.
In an interview, the House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said many incompetent VA managers need to go, including Dennis Kuewa, the head of the Los Angeles office. McCarthy said Kuewa told congressional staff that he had never worked in claims processing.
“We need someone who will actually solve the problems,” said McCarthy of Bakersfield. “We need a cultural change.”
Kuewa could not be reached for comment.
Both McCarthy and Miller stopped short of calling for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a four-star Army general and Vietnam combat veteran.
“I don’t believe his staff serves him well because I believe they keep him sequestered,” Miller said. “They keep him uninformed.”