Obama Targets Backlog of Veterans' Claims

President Barack Obama lashed special interests and their "exotic projects" that he said drain the defense budget of money needed for U.S. military forces. Video by AP
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Obama administration is calling once again on federal employees to submit ideas on improving government services. This time, it is targeting the time and effort it takes to process veterans' disability benefits.

The number of unresolved disability claims has soared this year, prompting protests from veterans groups and members of Congress. The American Legion said in late June that the number was approaching 1 million claims, but Department of Veterans Affairs officials dispute that figure.

Under the plan announced Monday by President Obama, rank-and-file employees with VA's Veterans Benefits Administration will be asked to suggest, through a Web-based computer program, how to reduce the department's backlog. The VBA has about 18,400 employees, most of whom work at its 57 regional offices.

Top department officials will work with Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh P. Chopra to pick the best suggestions and implement them by year's end.

The goal is to "cut those backlogs, slash those wait times and deliver your benefits sooner," Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Monday at their national convention in Phoenix.

This is the second time Obama has called on Kundra, Zients and Chopra to quickly tackle a challenge. In June, the president gave them just 90 days to work with Citizenship and Immigration Services on a new Web site that would provide immigration applicants with updates on their status via text messages or e-mail. The site will launch in the coming weeks.

Chopra said Monday in an interview that working on such issues as immigration and veterans' services in a quick fashion helps the White House meet long-term policy goals.

"It makes coming to work very exciting when you can combine the broader policy debates around budgets and legislation and executive orders with tangible, operational, on-the-ground change," he said.

The plan Obama announced Monday is separate from an April request that all rank-and-file federal employees submit cost-saving ideas that could be incorporated into the federal budget. Details on that program are expected next month.

During his speech in Phoenix, Obama also noted that his proposed 2010 budget includes a 15 percent increase in VA funding, the largest boost in more than 30 years.

"America's commitments to its veterans are not just lines in a budget. They are bonds that are sacrosanct, a sacred trust we are honor-bound to uphold. And we will," he said.

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