Last week in Reno, I met up with Secretary Eric Shinseki of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. I have sat down with him and other members of the veteran community several times, and I have been impressed with his vision, leadership and commitment to improving the ways that we serve our veterans.
Our discussions have generally been about issues facing veterans nationwide and how we can partner at the state, local and federal levels to meet those needs. He and his staff have worked very hard to ensure that this partnership works efficiently. This collaboration is rightfully seen as a crucial part of making the system work.
I was able to share with his staff the focus the Green Zone Initiative, our statewide effort that is aimed at enhancing that collaboration. I was able to engage with Shinseki in two settings. The first was a meeting of veteran stakeholders and leaders from Northern Nevada. There were representatives from the federal legislative offices, the VA medical and benefits offices, service organizations such as the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and a few others. The crowd’s small size allowed the secretary to address many of the topics the group mentioned, and to do so in greater detail.
The second was an interview with a newspaper in which he detailed many of the efforts under way to meet his goal of “breaking the disability claim backlog by 2015.” His commitment to break the backlog means that the VA has no claims older than 125 days old, with 90 percent accuracy. This is an important metric, and while they have made tremendous progress toward it, it is going to take a lot of support, focus and resources to get there. They are going to have to keep motivating the VA work force, keep training their leaders and implement their digital-claims program.
As most within the veteran community know, the backlog came from a series of important decisions made by the secretary. He mentioned that he stood behind his decisions to address the Agent Orange Presumptive for Vietnam veterans, for conditions relating to Gulf War Illness, as well as evidentiary requirements for post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma have all added to the backlog, and that he publicly predicted early on that this would be the case.
I was pleased to mention the many other programs outside of disability claims that the VA has mentioned, as well as our commitment to partnership with the VA in any way that we can be useful. I have tremendous respect for the secretary and his staff, and believe that they have done an extraordinary job of addressing the significant needs of his nation’s veterans during a difficult period of war. He did say that there was a long way to go, but that his organization is on track to reaching its goals by the 2015 target date.
Caleb S. Cage is the executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services. You can read his blog at http://veterans.nv.gov/blog.