On February 14, 2008, Veterans for Common Sense testified before Congress and demanded accountability for VA’s catastrophic inability to provide timely and accurate claims decisions to disabled veterans. VCS specifically called for the removal of Daniel Cooper, VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits, as the top person responsible for VA’s claims fiasco.
On February 28, 2008, Cooper unexpectedly resigned. VCS wishes him well.
In light of Cooper’s decision to cut and run, VCS believes today presents a rare opportunity for President George W. Bush to appoint an aggressive veterans’ advocate to overhaul VA’s broken and obsolete claims system. Now is the right time for Congress to implement the sound and reasonable recommendations made by the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission.
COOPER AND NICHOLSON – A TRAGIC LEGACY OF FAILURE
Not only is massive reform vital, so, too, is a history lesson in how the wheels came off at VBA. Here is a chronology showing how Daniel Cooper was fully aware of VBA’s claims crisis well before he became Under Secretary. However, Cooper failed to use this knowledge and deliver for veterans, even after six years as the top VA official responsible for disability compensation claims:
• In early 2001, then-Secretary Anthony Principi recognized challenges at VBA, and he created the “Claims Processing Task Force,” naming Cooper to lead it, even though he had no experience with VA. Cooper was a retired Navy Vice Admiral who served on the board of directors for Exelon, a nuclear power company, and USAA, an insurance and banking company.
• In October 2001, Cooper issued his Task Force report, which made dozens of thoughtful incremental recommendations, including holding VBA employees accountable. In November 2001, the full House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing to discuss the work of the Task Force. After 9/11 and after the invasion of Afghanistan, Cooper told the full Committee, “In my opinion, today, there are enough resources in VBA to do the job that has to be done,” a disturbing mantra repeated until the Walter Reed scandal blew the cover the shabby way this Administration treats our veterans.
• In December 2001, with more troops pouring into Afghanistan and with plans on the table to invade Iraq, Cooper provided additional written answers to the questions from Congress about VA staffing resources. Cooper wrote, “At the hearing, I specifically stated that new resources (i.e., FTE) should not be provided.” Given that there were hundreds of thousands of claims from half of our Gulf War veterans, everyone wants to know why did Cooper not plan for nor act on the needs of a new generation of war veterans when he became Under Secretary in 2002?
This disgraceful pattern of under staffing and under funding VA continued from 2001 through 2008.
• In February 2007, former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson told Congress, “The President’s 2008 budget request provides the resources necessary to ensure that service members’ transition from active duty military status to civilian life continues to be as smooth and seamless as possible.” Nicholson, who relied on Cooper to run VA’s benefits programs, told Congress, “We expect to improve the timeliness of processing these claims to 145 days in 2008…. In addition, we anticipate that our pending inventory of disability claims will fall to about 330,000 by the end of 2008…”
• In VA’s press release dated February 4, 2008, VA once again promised to cut the backlog to 300,000 claims and process claims in an average of 145 days. However, VA’s most recent reports confirm the claims backlog of unfinished work stands at more than 400,000, and veterans wait an average of 183 days. Cooper and Nicholson were repeatedly and catastrophically wrong, and our veterans and their families paid a very steep price.
COOPER’S EXIT LONG PAST DUE
Veterans for Common Sense believes Under Secretary Daniel Cooper’s departure was long overdue, just as Nicholson’s was. Cooper’s tenure was identical to disgraced former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson: both were incompetent and forced out of office because they failed to provide timely and quality assistance to our nation’s veterans. Their failures reflect on the string of poor choices made by President George W. Bush, who appointed unqualified VA leaders and who chronically under funded VA for years.
In 2006, as the VA claims crisis worsened, Cooper and Nicholson quietly handed out millions of dollars in cash bonuses, up to $33,000 in some cases, to top VA executives – during a time when more and more veterans waited longer and longer for VA benefits. That’s right, while veterans couldn’t feed their families and pay their bills due to disabilities, top VA executives got huge cash rewards. A reasonble person would conclude VA leaders were rewarded for failure. The bonuses should have gone to hard-working and over-burdened claims processors and other VA staff. Or the bonus cash could have been used to hire more employees.
In another strike against Cooper, in 2007, Veterans for Common Sense and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed an ethics complaint about Cooper because he appeared on a video, using his name and government title, to raise money and promote his personal views of religion, which violates our Consitution.
As reported by Aaron Glantz at Inter Press Service, “Cooper has been under fire for using his office to proselytise for evangelical Christianity ever since he appeared in a 2004 fundraising video for Christian Embassy, which carries out missionary work among the Washington elite as part of the Campus Crusade for Christ. In the video, Cooper says of his Bible study, ‘It’s not really about carving out time, it really is a matter of saying what is important. And since that’s more important than doing the job — the job’s going to be there, whether I’m there or not.'”
The lessons from the Nicholson and Cooper resignations are stark and tragic: the Bush Administration failed to monitor and then to plan for the massive tidal wave of hundreds of thousands of unexpected patients and disability claims as a result of the Iraq War fiasco. The end result of Cooper’s and Nicholson’s catastrophic failure is that 400,000 veterans wait an average of more than six months for a VA disability claim decision.
No veteran should ever have to wait more than 30 days for a VA decision. We must put veterans first. As World War II General Omar Bradley said while leading VA, “We are dealing with veterans, not procedures – with their problems, not ours.”
VCS believes Cooper’s departure represents an opportunity for the President and Congress to honor our nation’s commitment to those who protect and defend our Constitution. It is also an opportunity to let more than 200,000 hard-working dedicated VA employees know that desperatey needed help is on the way.
The future looks tough. VA is expected to spend up to $700 billion dollars providing disability payments and healthcare to 700,000 or more Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans over the next 40 years, according to a Harvard University report.
In 2009, VA expects to treat 333,000 – yes, a third of a million – Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran patients. Older veterans continue pouring into VA as our domestic economy worsens. Plus hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War veterans are flooding into an already overburdened VA with PTSD and serious illnesses related to Agent Orange dioxin poisoning.
These facts present President Bush and Congress with two simple choices for VA:
• They can either ignore VA’s claims crisis and the urgent need for substantial overhaul, and then watch helplessly as hundreds of thousands more veterans slip through the cracks into despair.
• Or, they can name an aggressive veterans’ advocate who will reform and modernize VA’s broken and obsolete claims system following the recommendations of the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission, VA union employees, veterans’ groups, and veterans’ advocates.
One of the first reforms that would have an immediate impact is automatically approving Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans’ claims for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as VCS recommended in our Congressional testimony in July 2007 and again this month. Real reform begins by listening to the veterans forced to wait and the veterans living on meager benefits, veterans so far ignored by this Administration. Real reform means listening to VA rank-and-file employees with experience and ideas who were ignored for the past seven years.
With 11 months remaining in Bush’s lame duck term, now is the right time for VA reform. Let’s hope the President finally fights for veterans by naming a high-quality replacement for Cooper and by treating VA’s fiasco with the urgency it deserves.