One of the deepest questions philosophers have considered over the centuries is the sometimes conflict between the rights and needs of society, and the rights and needs of each individual member of that society.
The latest point in the debate over fixing the Veterans Affairs Department is a microcosm of that debate.
The claims backlog the Veterans Benefits Administration has been dealing with for years is finally below 100,000, according to numbers from late summer. The agency promoted the backlog reduction then as a sign that its management strategy was working, in contrast to scandals inside the agency’s other main branch, the Veterans Health Administration. The timing was unfortunate, though; whatever good publicity the VBA, and its then-leader Alison Hickey, might have gotten out of the news was obliterated by the scandal surrounding two employees who received enormous relocation benefits after engineering jobs for themselves outside Washington, displacing other VA officials who held those jobs.
Those numbers look different, though, in light of a Los Angeles Times article on the backlog. Given what the Times reports, it seems unlikely the agency will ever be able to make it go away. The biggest holdup to making the backlog disappear is the most politically unpalatable element of the claims process to do something about.
The biggest roadblock, the Times story makes it seem, is the veterans themselves.
The major reason the backlog doesn’t shrink any faster, the way the story tells it, is that vets submit appeals over and over again when they get outcomes they don’t agree with, hoping against hope for a different outcome. The article tells the story of one vet who did indeed get a different outcome after many tries. He’s still in the system, though – now trying to get retroactive benefits.
The reason he and the other vets do so? Because they can.
“Unlike U.S. civil courts, the appeals system has no mechanism to prevent endless challenges,” the Times’ Alan Zarembo writes. “Veterans can keep their claims alive either by appealing or by restarting the process from scratch by submitting new evidence: service records, medical reports or witness statements.”
The logistics of the backlog is complicated, and has lots of qualifications. The 100,000 number VA celebrated in August was for initial claims applications that were 125 days old. Since that number was well over half a million when the agency declared war on it two years ago, the progress looks real.
The news isn’t all good, though. The Times reports while the claims backlog has shrunk, the appeals backlog – vets who don’t like the response they get from VA and ask to have it reviewed – has climbed from 167,412 in September 2005 to 425,480 in October 2015.
“VA officials say there are two possible solutions to the bottleneck,” Zarembo writes. Those are “money to hire more lawyers, judges and other staff to process appeals, or a rewrite of the law by Congress.” In essence, the VA has pushed the backlog from claims to appeals by applying its resources to claims. It appears to be playing Whac-A-Mole with the claims/appeals process; one goes down, the other pops up.
Since more money for more staff isn’t likely, a rewrite of laws seems more possible. And that is where the philosophical question of the needs of the many versus the needs of the individual comes in. Cutting the number of appeals vets can file would make sense from a purely logistical perspective. Some vets appeal dozens of times – or more – and never win. Is infinity the right number of allowable appeals? Probably not. Is one the right number of allowable appeals? Probably not. But where in between those two is the right number? And how does Congress make that decision, as it will inevitably have to do?
Everyone in politics today wants to “support the vets.” Certainly doing anything that appears to harm veterans individually is a ticket to political trouble; I can hear the negative ads in my head already.
But endless appeals inevitably mean endless backlogs. And the person who can make the political argument that some limit – however big or small it turns out to be – will help vets collectively, will make a huge difference for the rest of the vets waiting in line for their cases to be decided.
Francis Rose is an award-winning broadcaster, journalist, speaker, writer and host of FrancisRose.com. He is the author of OPM Cyber Breach: An In-Depth Look at the Worst Cyber Attack in Government History and the upcoming book Greatness Again: Revitalizing America’s Strategic Leadership on the World Stage (February 2016).