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CROWLEY: Joining me now, General Shinseki, the head of the V.A. in your first Sunday interview. So, we appreciate you're giving it to us on such an incredible issue, frankly.
SHINSEKI: Thank you for having me, Candy.
CROWLEY: I want to start talking about the backlog.
CROWLEY: And knowing that in October of 2009, you've been in the V.A. for less than a year, 164,000 in the backlog. And that's defined as cases pending for more than 125 days. It's now 630,000. What is wrong here? SHINSEKI: Well, Candy, first of all, no one should have to wait for their claims to be processed. Let me just make sure that we understand what we're talking about here. For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning today, they have been granted five years of medical care to which they have access at V.A. if they present and they'll be enrolled.
CROWLEY: How long does that take?
SHINSEKI: They present and they have the proper identification and they're immediately enrolled. So, for compensation, which is the disability claims, which is the backlog, that, indeed, has increased. Ten years of war, requirements have gone up, more complex claims because of the seriousness --
CROWLEY: Multiple claims by one person have gone up.
SHINSEKI: That's correct. A complexity issue. But, also, we're a paper process, have been for decades. This has been decades building. And we need to go digital, and we're in the process of doing that. We also compound this backlog when we make decisions as we did in 2010 to grant Agent Orange service connection for Vietnam veterans, Gulf War illness service connection for those who went to desert storm 1.
And then, our increase of claims to combat PTSD for the first time ever, we've said if you've been in combat, you have verifiable PTSD.
CROWLEY: General, I understand the job is complicated and huge and we're coming off two wars, but this administration and you knew that coming in that two wars were going to end. We talked about changing from paper to digital for these claims for the five years you've been head of the V.A., for the five years the president has been there.
The backlog has gotten worse on something that was pretty foreseeable in a lot of ways knowing that these wars were going to end. Is it acceptable to you that 70 percent of your claims have been pending over 125 days?
SHINSEKI: No veteran should have to wait for claims. If there's anybody impatient here, I am that individual. And, we're pushing hard.
CROWLEY: Why is it that the veterans, themselves, get the sense that the V.A. is an impenetrable bureaucracy? Because again, after five years, it seems like that's enough time to streamline this process.
SHINSEKI: Veterans in the last four Years, candy, have joined us in unprecedented numbers. 940,000 more veterans enrolled for benefits than they were four years ago. So, the fact is that veterans are coming to us and they are being enrolled. We produce a million claims decision each year going out the door and have for the last three years.
And so, when we talk about an inventory of claims today of about 875,000 claims of which about 600,000 are backlogged, just the amount of work we put out the door indicates that this is not a static number. There are going to be a few who are complex enough to go longer than we'd like. But there is a lot of work being done.
CROWLEY: Right. I mean, this is more than a few. As you know, there've been a lot of veterans groups coming to Washington this month going this backlog is insane. And it is not fulfilling what this country said how they, you know -- I don't know a politician that doesn't say we have to take care of these men and women when they come home.
And yet --there's the Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans Association and I have started the tumbler feed about stopping the backlog. And I wanted to read you just two quick entries. There are a lot of them. One of them from a marine veteran. "I'm a marine veteran suffering from depression. I've never sought treatment. Why should I? The average wait is 273 days. Stop the V.A. Backlog and you can save my life."
Another vet, "The V.A. expects pending cases to grow and pass one million by the end of March. Mr. President and Congress, what is your plan?"
What do you say to the hundreds and hundreds of veterans going I have been sitting here for 200 and more days and I can't get any help?
SHINSEKI: For, again, let me use the marine veteran that you talked about to be sure we understand what we're addressing here. In health care, mental health, we're open for business. They have five years of V.A. health care granted.
CROWLEY: How long does that take?
SHINSEKI: They present themselves at one of our facilities with proper identification and they're enrolled and begin treatment.
CROWLEY: That day?
SHINSEKI: They begin that day. If it's an emergent condition within 24 hours, they will be seen. If it's an initial appointment where we, at times, scheduled up, within two weeks they will be seen.
CROWLEY: What do you need, Mr. Secretary? I also don't know a veteran that doesn't speak so highly of you and your service. So, this is not a lack of caring, but this is a lack of something. A lot of people look at it. Does the president need to get involved here? We have a situation where the defense department, the VA, on different systems. So, it takes a while once you get out of the service to then go through the V.A. What can the president do? What do you need in order to make this happen more quickly?
SHINSEKI: Well, the president's been very clear veterans are a top priority with him. And ending the backlog is foremost in his mind. He has made that very clear.
CROWLEY: But is there something he can do for you? Does it need more people? Do you need more processors? Do you need more accountability for the processors? What do you need?
SHINSEKI: In the past four years, if you look at our budget for V.A., a 40 percent increase our budgets at a time when other departments have gone through belt tightening. Someone once told me that show me your budget and I'll show you what you value. I think very clearly from this president the growth in our budgets reflect where he places his value.
CROWLEY: Let me -- I want to point out to you something that Congressman Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, said talking about the backlog.
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REP. JEFF MILLER, (R) CHAIRMAN, VETERAN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Without better workload or surge capacity planning, I am fearful that V.A. is simply one national mission away from complete collapse and utter failure.
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CROWLEY: And, again, I think it sounds like the president's heart's in the right place, your heart's in the right place, but something here is not working. And if a country promises people go fight for us and we'll fight for you.
CROWLEY: We see the increase suicide rates, we see these enormous backlogs that get worse instead of better, and yet, you have an increased budget. So, I'm just trying to figure out why this isn't working.
SHINSEKI: Well, we have put in place a robust plan to end the backlog in 2015. That's been our commitment. And we have today an automation tool that we didn't have two years ago. And, it is called the Veterans Benefits Management System. It has already been fielded to 20 of our regional offices.
We will be in all 56 regional offices by the end of this year. And this automation process is going to give us a production, you know, a ramp that we've not been able to produce to this point.
CROWLEY: And we're still not, you know, we're looking at 2015 is your goal. That's a long time for a vet.
SHINSEKI: Well, we've put three million claims out the door. If you have an inventory of about 875,000, a million claims decisions going out a year, you know we're taking care of business. There are going to be a few that are complex enough to run longer than we would like.
CROWLEY: But it's not a few, is it? There's so many backlogged, so many that have been waiting. The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained documents saying that in cities like New York, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, the average processing days for first-time filers is 600 days. So, that's not a few cases either.
SHINSEKI: Well, we can go and take, you know, take those numbers and drill down into them, but again, our commitment is we're going to end the backlog in 2015. This has been decades in the making, ten years of war. We're in paper. We need to get out of paper. We still get paper from DOD and other agencies.
We have commitments that in 2014, we will be electronically processing our data and sharing it.
CROWLEY: I want to ask you one question about jobs, and that is, as you know, the veterans jobless rate is higher than the average population. Have you done enough to help those veterans? And what do you think the problem is?
SHINSEKI: Well, we all look for the opportunity to increase veteran employment. I think the latest employment numbers do reflect some impact.
CROWLEY: About 9.4 now.
SHINSEKI: That's correct. And the president has been forward and leading on this. I think you're familiar with the joining forces initiative out of the White House led by the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden that promised by the end of 2013, a 100,000 new jobs for military spouses and veterans, they passed that in 2012.
And I think we're up in the neighborhood of 175,000 and continuing to grow. We hire veterans inside the federal government. One-third of my agency are veterans. And we're looking to push that to 40 percent. But this is an area --
CROWLEY: There's many more outside obviously that need help. I want to ask you a final question. By playing back something you said in 2008 when you were nominated.
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SHINSEKI: They deserve a smooth, error-free, no-fail, benefits assured transition into our ranks as veterans, and that is our responsibility. Not theirs.
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CROWLEY: Have you lived up to that responsibility?
SHINSEKI: The commitment hasn't changed, Candy. I took this job to make things better for veterans. I don't know them individually, but I know them as a group. I've served with many of them. And the commitment hasn't changed. And we're going to fix this.
CROWLEY: And, again, for you and for the president it's not a question of commitment. It's a question of results. And the question is have there been enough results over a five-year period to satisfy you?
SHINSEKI: No veteran should have to wait for claims as they are today. We have a fix for this. We're open for business. And we will end the backlog in 2015.
CROWLEY: General Shinseki, we appreciate you coming by. We hope you will come by more often as such an important issue I think for the whole country not just the veterans seeking their benefits. Thank you.
SHINSEKI: Thank you, Candy.
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