To lawmakers: Let's bring Veterans Affairs into Digital Age

To: Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Harry Reid, D-Nev., Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford, both D-Nev., and Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, both R-Nev.

Subject: Veterans Disability Benefits

First, I want to give Eric Ken Shinseki, a retired Army four-star general, his due in this email.

He sacrificed for his country, losing part of his foot when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. And though it cost him influence when he publicly clashed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over how many troops would be needed in Iraq, it turned out that he, then Army chief of staff, was correct in his assessment that Rumsfeld’s planned troop levels wouldn’t work long term.

Shinseki is a patriot. No debate there.

That’s why in 2009 President Barack Obama appointed him as the seventh secretary of Veterans Affairs.

There also can be no debate over this: He’s the latest in a string of failures at the VA since the 1990s, men appointed by presidents of both parties on the basis of political support rather than on their understanding of, or even a dynamic appreciation for, information technology, the key to ensuring disabled veterans receive benefits in a timely fashion.

Shinseki lost the war he said had to be fought –– to bring the VA into the digital age –– on behalf of veterans. He must go. Veterans grow more cynical with each passing day. About 53 veterans die each day before their claims are adjudicated. Caring VA personnel are demoralized as the department is soon expected to hit a deplorable 1 million unprocessed claims.

Today, despite the VA spending $500 million over four years to push the process online, 97 percent of veterans claims are still on paper. Each claim ends up with stacks of paperwork, with documents sent here and there. That translates, by the VA’s estimate, to an average time of 273 days to process benefits applications.

In Nevada, 4,210 veterans have waited more than a year for an answer to claims.

“It’s the way the government does things,” Vietnam veteran Lou Filardo told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “In the private sector, time is money, but in the public sector it’s ‘when we get around to it.’  ”

To do right by our wounded warriors it’s time for our nation’s big guns to temporarily step forward –– information technology experts that include the likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Apple’s Tim Cook. The predictable letters of complaint to the VA from politicians, including Nevada’s (OK, Amodei didn’t sign it), will do nothing to unhinge delays. It’s obvious many at the VA still think a mouse is something you eat on a mission in Vietnam when you run out of C-rations.

In an op-ed piece on where he calls for veterans claims to be handled in 30 days –– that’s the same time frame Quicken Loans, using powerful online tools, processes the majority of its mortgage applications –– U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., argues high-tech companies that include Microsoft, Google and Apple could bid on a contract. Certainly, that could be done.

But why not be as audacious as IT entrepreneurs have been? Why not ask Gates, Schmidt and Cook to volunteer brainpower to solve the problem? After all, it was the military service of millions of American men and women who gave them the freedom to create their technology and to make billions. That’s a powerful argument for giving back. Particularly when you consider the hard-fought freedom they were given allowed them to become part of the 1 percent controlling 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Yes, they do philanthropic work –– Gates’ billions help solve educational and health care problems. But when it comes to an area where their expertise could easily turn around an outrageous problem unsolved by the last six VA secretaries –– they’re silent.

We know how our wounded warriors responded to the call for sacrifice that they learned in school: “Ask not what your country can do for you –– ask what you can do for your country.”

Now, in their time of need, our government’s response is so slow to veterans that it even makes young people wonder whether they should consider military service. The failure isn’t resources. You’ve provided the VA with $25 billion in funding since 2009 and exempted it from sequestration cuts, allowing for purchasing proper IT hardware.

It could be that all Gates et al need are an “ask” from dedicated public officials to do the right thing. Who better than you? You continually ask for money to stay in office, so why not ask for help for a truly good cause?

Paul Harasim

Vietnam Veteran

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at or 702-387-2908.