By Steve Vogel / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — A petition signed by a reported 26,000 veterans and sent to the White House on Tuesday calls for President Obama to fire Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, saying a change of leadership is needed to eliminate the lengthy backlog of veterans awaiting action on their disability claims.
In advance of the petition, the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday released figures reporting that the backlog of claims pending more than 125 days is down by almost 20 percent from its highest point more than four months ago.
The VA progress continues a trend first reported in June, when department officials said they had reached “a tipping point,” with the number of cases awaiting action declining.
The claims backlog — those cases pending 125 days or longer — stands at 490,000, which is down from the 530,000 reported June 15, figures show. The VA says its total claims inventory of 773,000 is the lowest since April 2011, and down from 808,000 on June 15.
The group that organized the petition, Concerned Veterans for America, said the progress is not enough.
“There are still 500,000 veterans waiting in the disability claims backlog, and this is unacceptable,” the group said in a statement. “CVA is keeping the heat on and will ensure the voices of veterans are heard.”
The White House has praised Shinseki’s efforts to reduce the backlog.
Obama told a veterans group this month that the administration was “turning the tide” in the effort to reduce the backlog. “We are not where we need to be, but we’re making progress,” Obama said in an address to the Disabled American Veterans’ convention in Orlando Aug. 10. “In the last five months alone, it’s down nearly 20 percent.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the latest VA figures show “significant” progress in reducing the long wait many veterans face to have their claims heard.
“We must remain aggressive and we intend to closely monitor the situation to ensure that the progress continues, but I am glad we are now making progress toward the goal of ending the backlog by the end of 2015,” Sanders said in a statement released by his office.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the decrease is “a welcomed statistic,” but he questioned whether the progress will continue.
“My main concern right now is that VA’s primary focus is quelling the backlash about the backlog, rather than providing long-term sustainable solutions to the systemic issues that created the backlog in the first place,” he said.
The VA said the measures it has taken to reduce the backlog — including reorganization, new training and new technology — amount to “the largest transformation in its history to eliminate the backlog of disability compensation claims and transform the way benefits and services are delivered to veterans, their families and survivors.”
Pete Hegseth, the leader of Concerned Veterans for America, tried to deliver the petition at the northwest White House gate Tuesday morning, accompanied by two veterans. Police told the group that hand-delivered petitions could not be accepted.
“We were prepared for that so we boxed them up immediately following and mailed them,” said Kate Pomeroy, a spokeswoman for the organization.