The numbers are staggering. The Department of Veterans' Affairs estimates that within a month more than 1 million veterans will have filed for disability benefits -- and they'll all have to wait in line. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.
The benefit-claims backlog that has ensnared nearly 600,000 younger veterans — many with war wounds — has reached a crisis point inside the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the hour has come for President Barack Obama to become personally involved in unclogging the quagmire, two of the nation's leading veterans advocates told NBC News Thursday.
"It’s time to go above the VA. If you think of VA as a broken down car, it’s hard for us to know how to fix it if we can’t see under the hood. The president can see under the hood. And the president can send people in to fix it," said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which represents more than 200,000 people.
"When you have so many men and women that are waiting years to see their claims adjudicated, there is a problem and it's somewhere within VA. And the president needs to take a personal interest," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Rieckhoff contends that Obama must answer a key question: With the overall claims tally surpassing 900,000 cases earlier this year and with 34,000 troops soon returning from Afghanistan, should VA Secretary Eric Shinseki be replaced?
In a meeting Wednesday with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Rieckhoff said he told Obama's top advisor: "We need to hear it from the president" as to whether Shinseki should remain atop the VA.
During a press briefing Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "It is absolutely the president’s position that we need to aggressively address this problem, and he has made clear to Secretary Shinseki that he wants this addressed. He is getting weekly updates on the backlog."
Responded Rieckhoff: "We’re focused on ending the backlog. What we need from the president is a plan to end the backlog. If (Shinseki's removal) is a part of that plan, we’d love to hear about it. The easy thing to do is fire some people. But that won’t necessarily fix things.
"Yes, we need a cultural transformation (at the VA). We need new blood, new ideas," Rieckhoff added. "But three VA secretaries have been there and three VA secretaries have failed. That’s why we’re focused on the president. This is bigger than Shinseki."
"The backlog is the place where veterans end up feeling betrayed. When your claim is delayed 600 days, which is the case if you live in New York or L.A., you feel like your president and your country are letting you down," said IAVA's Paul Rieckhoff, photographed Thursday speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C.
VA official urged to step down
On Tuesday, Miller called for the resignation of Allison Hickey, the VA's under secretary of benefits. Miller is frustrated with Hickey, in part, because she can not project where the backlog will stand in 12 months while she is simultaneously promising that no veterans will be waiting 125 days or more for their benefits by 2015. Miller said he fears that high-ranking VA officials have failed to reveal to Shinseki the real depth of the claims challenge and the scope of the financial hardships faced by hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans — many who are unable to work due to battle injuries.
Asked Thursday if he believes Shinseki should resign, Miller said: "I am not prepared to ask the same of the secretary. He has a strong desire to do what is right. My fear is his leadership (team) has not been transparent with him to the point that he knows the true picture that exists out there."
This week, four other prominent veterans' groups — Student Veterans of America, The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) all voiced support for Shinseki and for the work being done by the VA's Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), which has handled claims for millions of veterans. Those groups argue that the VA's plan to cut the backlog should be given a chance to work.
"DAV believes that VBA is on the right path, that they have set the right goals and that they have leadership committed to transforming and institutionalizing a new claims processing system to better serve veterans," DAV national legislative director Joe Violante testified Wednesday before a Senate panel examining veterans issues.
During 2012, the VA paid $58.6 billion in benefits to 4.3 million veterans or their survivors, according to the VA. The agency reported Thursday that its total "claims inventory" stands at 859,396. The VA defines its "backlog" as claims that have been pending for more than 125 days — that number stands at 592,222, according to the VA.
"Secretary Shinseki believes it is unacceptable that veterans are waiting too long to get the benefits they have earned," read a statement emailed by Josh Taylor, a VA spokesman. "That is why VA is implementing an aggressive plan that will solve this decades old problem for good and transform how VA processes claims for decades to come."
But according to Miller, one factor fueling the backlog is that VA claims handlers are not working as efficiently as they did before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1997, the average VA field officer processed 138 claims a year while, in 2011, with three times as many overall employees, the average VA field officer processed 73 claims a year, Miller said.
"I have confidence at this time that (Shinseki) has a desire to move in the right direction. He leads an organization of 300,000 people that delivers some of the best health care in the world as well as educational benefits," Miller said. "But this benefits backlog, unfortunately, is going to be a stain that will stay with VA for years to come."