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Column: VA’s Leaders Are Not Up to the Task and Need to Be Replaced

When President George W. Bush accepted Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation as defense secretary in November 2006, it was interpreted as an admission that the war in Iraq needed new direction. Widespread dissatisfaction with the war’s progress, reflected in that year’s midterm elections, demanded fresh leadership at the Pentagon. Two years later, after a surge of troops and a new strategy, the war looked much different.

Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is in an analogous quagmire as it struggles to provide benefits quickly to veterans of all generations. From whistleblowers to unfavorable watchdog reports to wasted money, evidence of VA dysfunction is staggering. We have been strong supporters of the department’s efforts to improve operations, but the time for good intentions is over. Veterans are not getting the service they deserve.

During confirmation hearings on his nomination to lead the VA, Gen. Eric Shinseki pledged to streamline the claims process and bring the department into the digital age — laudable goals. But the VA is projected soon to hit a grim landmark of 1 million unprocessed benefits claims, with roughly 600,000 of those more than 125 days old. By the secretary’s own admission, this failure is not for a lack of resources. While other federal departments’ budgets have been cut, Congress has provided the VA with $25 billion in additional funding since 2009 and exempted it from sequestration-related cuts. Clearly, throwing money at the problem hasn’t worked.

In the past four years, the VA has spent more than $500 million to migrate its claims process online, but an estimated 97 percent of veterans claims are still filed on paper. Worse, despite a costly attempt to streamline data systems, Defense Department databases still do not communicate with VA systems.

The VA also refuses to admit the severity of its problems. It claims that the average time for processing benefits applications is 273 days, more than nine months. But a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, drawing on internal VA documents, found that this severely understates reality. The center found that the VA’s ability to provide service to veterans has “virtually collapsed” since 2009 and that wait times are, on average, closer to a year. In New York, Los Angeles and other metro areas, veterans typically wait more than 600 days for their claims to be processed. And in too many cases, veterans are dying before their claims are adjudicated — 53 each day on average.

Some defenders of the VA say that the backlog is growing because new veterans are entering the system and access for veterans of previous generations has been expanded. Even so, the VA should have seen this crisis coming. Veterans returning home from war and more veterans accessing the system mean more claims. The department failed to plan.

It is painfully clear that VA leadership is not up to the task. Eric Shinseki is a patriot and an honorable man who has served this country faithfully in and out of uniform. We have the utmost respect for him and his service, but his tenure at the Department of Veterans Affairs has not produced results.

In other spheres, a leader who falters would be swiftly replaced. Can you imagine a battlefield commander failing yet staying in place? We cannot and therefore believe that new leadership at the VA — from top to bottom, in Washington and across the country — is necessary.

We recognize that replacing a Cabinet secretary is a dramatic step. But few things are more important than honoring the commitments our nation has made to its veterans. The president and VA officials have said all the right things, but they have not delivered. Good intentions and rhetoric are not enough.

Since the problems at the VA did not arise overnight, merely replacing the secretary would not fix the underlying issues. The department needs a dynamic and uncompromising leader who will make bold reforms to a bloated and calcified bureaucracy and rethink the way we interact with and serve veterans of all generations. We need to learn from the private sector about customer service and efficiency and hold VA officials accountable to deliver on their mission.

We stand ready to work with President Obama and his administration to address the shortfall at the VA and to chart a course to reform and recovery. Those we served with, and all veterans, deserve no less from the nation they have sacrificed to defend.

Duncan D. Hunter, a Republican, represents California’s 50th District in the House. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marine Corps. Pete Hegseth is chief executive of Concerned Veterans for America and served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army.