Videos & Speeches
May 06 2014
Mr. President, there is no group of Americans whom I hold in higher regard than our Nation's veterans. Their service and sacrifice have allowed us to live in the strongest, freest, greatest country in the world.
American veterans have fought tyrants and terrorists to keep our country safe and secure. Yet even after they return from war, veterans today continue to fight tough, tough battles here at home. Many veterans find themselves struggling to find a job, they face difficulties accessing quality health care services — especially in rural areas like mine at home in Kansas — and all too many veterans must wait long, long periods of time for benefit claims to be processed by the VA.
As of April 2014 the backlog stood at 596,061 outstanding claims, and 53 percent of those have been waiting longer than 125 days for an answer from the VA. It takes approximately 266 days for most new claims to receive an answer.
If a veteran is unhappy with the outcome of their claim, they can file an appeal. The backlog for appeals is more than 272,000 — in backlogs alone. Some have waited more than 1,500 days — more than four years — to get a response on their appeal.
These numbers represent real people. They are not just statistics. They are not just average, everyday Americans. They are our veterans whom we claim we hold in the highest regard and esteem.
Americans who served our country are waiting to receive the benefits they earned. At a time when more and more troops are transitioning out of the military — and the needs are clear for our aging veterans — I am especially concerned that we are not keeping our promise to those who served our country.
I travel across Kansas and meet veterans in their communities across our state, I hear the stories about their VA claims process — from systemic issues with the back-and-forth of how the claims are handled, to absurd waiting times in Washington. I hear from veterans organizations that come from Kansas — the American Legion, Disabled Veterans of America, Concerned Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars — and they bring their stories of other veterans to me, outlining the problems the veterans back home are facing. The reality is that our veterans are losing hope that the VA will care for them.
Americans recently heard the story about a whistleblower in Phoenix, Arizona, at the VA in which there was a secret waiting list of veterans who had waited more than seven months to see a doctor in order to avoid VA policies on reporting extended delays. The VA hospital figured out how to hide those claims for seven months so that they weren’t reported.
Incidents of mismanagement and even death caused by the failures of the VA are far more numerous than we see in the news. Reports continue to pop up across the country, from Atlanta to Memphis, from St. Louis to Florida. The claims backlog, medical malpractice, mismanagement of a case, lack of oversight, and unethical environment all contribute to the VA's failure.
It has become abundantly clear that the dysfunction within the VA extends from the top to the bottom — at the highest headquarters and at each VISN and down to the local level in some medical facilities. Community-based outpatient clinics and regional benefit offices are part of the problem. The VA suffers from a culture that accepts mediocrity, leaving too many veterans without the care they need. Our veterans deserve better, and they deserve the best our Nation knows how to offer.
I highlight today the broken VA system and challenge the Department of Veterans Affairs to change. We need accountability and transformation within the VA system and its culture, top to bottom, all across the country. We must break the cycle of dysfunction today and take the steps necessary to make certain our veterans are no longer victims of their own government's bureaucracy.
Here are some examples from across our state:
Jack Cobos, a Kansan who sought medical attention at the Topeka VA hospital emergency room, is told his chest pains are related to muscles around his heart. He is sent home. A week later he returns and is transported to another emergency room. Ultimately, Jack dies of a heart attack — he never recovers — and we now pay tribute to that veteran who failed to receive the care he needed in a timely fashion.
One year later the same Topeka emergency room closed its doors to veterans seeking emergency treatment. And I am still waiting on a response from the VA to explain the closure of an emergency room at the VA hospital in Topeka, Kansas.
An outpatient clinic in Liberal has been without a primary care provider for more than three years. While others try to fill in the gap, there is nothing to date that the VA has done to solve the underlying problems. There is still no primary care provider.
I recently spoke about claims backlogs with a Kansas veteran involved in the American Legion named Dave Thomas from Leavenworth. He has waited since he filed his claim in 1970 and only this past year received an answer. He received a 90-percent disability rating from the VA, but it took 44 years for him to receive that answer.
A veteran with Parkinson’s disease was told recently — he filed his claim in March of last year. He was told this past week that it will now be processed only because his claim is now over a year old. You have to wait a year before you are in line in order for you to receive the process of your claim that you deserved more than one year ago. How can the VA establish a wait time benchmark of one year for veterans’ claims to get the attention they deserve?
It is so disappointing to hear these stories. I know that it is unacceptable. Whether a veteran served in 1941, 1951, 1971, 1991, 2001, 2011, or is currently serving, we owe the nation's veterans our absolute best after their military service is complete. Unfortunately, the VA system continues on a glidepath of dysfunction and is only, at best, plays defense.
The VA’s failure is not a matter of resources. That is always the easy answer: more money. But just last week President Obama himself said:
“We've resourced the Veterans Affairs office more in terms of increases than any other department or agency in my government.”
VA funding levels have increased well more than 60 percent since 2009. Each year there have been incremental increases of three, four, or five percent, and this year the request from the President's budget is for a 6.5-percent increase over last year’s spending. Yet our veterans continue to struggle and are not getting the treatment they earned and deserve, and they are not getting their benefits.
Republicans and Democrats have agreed on fully funding the VA to serve year after year, but this increase in spending results in no better service from the Department. To date, these increases have not in any way increased the service or support our veterans deserve and need. This is a problem with leadership and a lack of will to change.
I have been a member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee for 18 years, both in the House and Senate. I chaired the Health Subcommittee in the House. I have worked with nine VA Secretaries. This is an issue on which I always thought we were making progress. Today it is so disappointing to report to my colleagues in the Senate that this Department is dysfunctional, and the services get worse, not better.
We need accountability at the VA. The 44-year-old claims process of Dave Thomas and the untimely passing of Jack Cobos should not be forgotten, and the Department needs to make meaningful changes so that these cases and cases like these will never happen again.
While we continue to push legislative action, it is time to hold people accountable in order to enforce meaningful change. GAO reports, inspector general reports, and VA whistleblowers all call for action. A list I find now of eight press and IG reports — from CNN, to FOX News, to military.com, to our IG, to the Washington Examiner — all report what we would not believe could ever happen within the VA in the United States of America.
Veterans are waiting for action. Yet the VA continues to operate in the same old bureaucratic fashion, settling for mediocrity and continued disservice to our nation’s heroes.
It is clear that accountability at VA is absent. Oversight doesn’t mean much. And I sincerely and seriously question whether the leadership of the VA is capable and willing to enforce change. There is a difference between wanting change and leading it to happen.
Today I am demanding accountability and true transformation within the VA system and its culture, from top to bottom, and all across the country. Secretary Shinseki seemingly is unwilling or unable to do so, and change must be made at the top. I ask the Secretary to submit his resignation, and I ask President Obama to accept that resignation.
We must never forget that our nation has responsibility to its veterans. That means receiving the care and support they earned.
God bless our veterans and all those serving at home and abroad and all their families. We need a Department of Veterans Affairs that is worthy of your sacrifice.