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US Veterans Agency Struggles to Meet Goals

FILE - A homeless Korean War veteran speaks with an outreach coordinator on a sidewalk in Boston, Massachusetts, Nov. 20, 2013.
FILE - A homeless Korean War veteran speaks with an outreach coordinator on a sidewalk in Boston, Massachusetts, Nov. 20, 2013.

Six years ago, the Obama administration set the ambitious goal of ending veteran homelessness in 2015 and ending the backlog in disability claims.

It appears likely the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will miss both targets even though it has made progress.

The latest count available showed about 50,000 homeless veterans on a single night in January 2014. That's a decline of 33 percent from January 2010. Results from the January 2015 count are expected later this month.

The disability and pension claims backlog also is on a downward path, although not before the claims processing system became so overwhelmed that lawmakers and veterans groups demanded changes at the VA.

The number of claims pending for more than 125 days soared from about 180,000 at the start of 2010 to more than 611,000 by March of 2013. It now stands at about 76,000.

Those are the kind of trends that politicians would surely like to cite during election season.

Yet, as one crisis began to fade at the VA, another blossomed. Reports of thousands of veterans waiting months and sometimes years for health care have taken priority and colored the way all other issues are viewed.

Veterans groups have always viewed the twin goals of ending homeless and the disability claim backlog with a healthy dose of reality. They're generally encouraged by the trend lines.

“If you don't meet your goals, it doesn't necessarily mean failure,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman at Veterans of Foreign Wars. “You have to think big if you're going to do big.”

The VA has been focused on getting the homeless into housing immediately and paying for it with a voucher that subsidizes most or all of the rent. The VA then works to provide the veterans with counseling, health care and other benefits.

In August, Connecticut became the first state to announce it had ended chronic homelessness among veterans. Officials said that means any veterans who had been homeless for more than a year or had four separate bouts of homelessness in recent years were either in permanent housing or on an immediate path to it. New Orleans, Houston, Salt Lake City and a few others have also made such declarations.

‘A lot of good progress’

VA Secretary Robert McDonald said last week that the end of the year was still the goal for ending veteran homelessness. The survey verifying that outcome won't take place until January and takes almost a year to tabulate. McDonald said his focus is now on Los Angeles with an estimated 4,200 homeless veterans.

Earlier this year, the VA agreed to settle a lawsuit that requires it to develop a long-term master plan for turning a sprawling West Los Angeles VA campus into housing for homeless vets.

“For some ways for me, the clock didn't start until we got that lawsuit settled, and we're making a lot of good progress out there,'' said McDonald, who was confirmed in July 2014.

Congressman Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, has been critical of the VA's goal-setting strategy, which was driven by former Secretary Eric Shinseki's belief that big goals were necessary to drive big changes.

The committee's staff estimates that the VA's spending on homelessness jumped from about $376 million in 2009 to about $1.5 billion last year.

“The fact that VA increases in spending on homeless initiatives are growing every year and far outpacing reductions in veteran homelessness calls into question the efficacy of VA's efforts,” Miller said. “Ultimately, the program's success has to be measured not by how much money VA is spending, but by how many participants are becoming self-sufficient.”

Progress on the disability claims backlog has been much more of a roller coaster. The backlog exploded in 2010 after the VA expanded the list of illnesses presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange.

That decision pumped about 260,000 claims into the system. The overall bottleneck grew exponentially when combined with other factors, such as the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan returning from war.

In March 2013, with the backlog peaking and a political crisis in full bloom, the VA ordered more than 10,000 workers to put in at least 20 hours of overtime each month to work on the backlog and deal with new claims.

McDonald said the agency completed 1.4 million claims this past fiscal year, the most in its history.

Congressman Tim Walz, another member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, acknowledges the VA's progress on both goals, but says it hasn't been enough.

“I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with it. That's the way we should be, and the VA needs to understand that,” Walz said.

“The progress that has been made has been absolutely remarkable, but we should have never been in that spot,” said Bill Rausch, political director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.