Potential VA Benefits Chief Has New Ideas

Army Times

February 3, 2009 – A Harvard University researcher with some radical ideas about how to reduce the backlog of veterans disability claims appears to be in line to head the Veterans Benefits Administration.

Linda Blimes, a public policy lecturer and research at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wants the Department of Veterans Affairs to operate like the Internal Revenue Service — on an honor system that trusts veterans claiming service-connected disabilities. All veterans claims would be approved as soon as they are filed, with a random audit conducted to “weed out and deter fraudulent claims,” Blimes told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in testimony in 2008.

Ninety percent of veterans disability claims end up being paid after they make it through the system, she said — proof, she said, that most veterans are asking only for what they deserve.

Immediate payment of at least a minimum benefit would help to reduce the average 180-day waiting time for initial benefits claims to be processed and allow VA to redeploy the employees processing those claims to work on more complicated appeals, she said.

Blimes also has talked of a vastly simplified disability rating system that would have just four ratings instead of the current 10 for service-connected disabilities and illnesses.

Blimes has not been formally announced as a nominee, but her name is being circulated among lawmakers and congressional staff in what has become a standard procedure to determine whether there is any strong opposition to her taking the key post.

Her idea of a streamlined claims process has some prominent supporters, among them Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman who has talked of automatic claims approval as a way to quickly eliminate the claims backlog.

Retired Rear Adm. Patrick Dunne, a holdover from the Bush administration, has stayed on to run the VBA until a successor is named. He is not the only VA executive who has stayed around; Dr. Michael Kussman also remains as VA’s undersecretary for health.

In addition to Blimes, another name being circulated is that of disabled Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, who could become VA’s chief of intergovernmental affairs. Duckworth, the Illinois director of veterans affairs, is closely associated with President Barack Obama.

On Friday, the White House announced its intention to nominate W. Scott Gould, a former Navy Reserve intelligence officer, to be VA deputy secretary under retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff recently named to head VA.

Gould does not have experience running veterans programs, but he was co-chairman of the review team that looked at VA for Obama and has experience in trying to centralize and streamline organizations. Gould is vice president for public sector strategy at IBM Global Business Services.

Gould is married to Michelle Flournoy, whom Obama has nominated to be undersecretary of defense for policy.

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