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‘Defend Freedom’ bus tour aims at backlog of veterans benefits claims

Concerned Veterans for America will launch a nationwide bus tour from Las Vegas today to heighten awareness about the Department of Veterans Affairs foot-dragging in its effort to reduce a staggering backlog of 500,000 benefits claims.

The non-profit, nonpartisan organization will also call attention to the nation’s security problems spawned by what the group’s CEO Pete Hegseth described when he arrived Thursday in Las Vegas as the unresolved national debt coupled with a bad policy of automatic budget cuts mandated by the sequester law.

“There are literally billions of dollars unaccounted for in the Pentagon budget. So before we go cutting and slashing combat brigades, let’s find out where the money is and a get a good accounting, especially while we’re drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Hegseth, an Army veteran of both those wars who currently serves in Minnesota’s National Guard.

The “Defend Freedom” bus tour arrives at 10 a.m. at Red Rock Harley-Davidson, 2260 S. Rainbow Blvd., for a two-hour stop to honor veterans with an expected crowd of 800 hosted by 42 volunteers led by Concerned Veterans for America local field representatives Bob and Deb Reiter.

After lunch, a bus carrying Hegseth and some noteworthy post-9/11 veterans will travel to the Cashman Center Bikefest for an afternoon stop before heading to San Diego. It’s one of dozens of stops the tour will make during the three-week campaign in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina.

On the Veterans Affairs front, Hegseth took aim at the claims backlog and the yearlong waits tens of thousands of veterans face in processing their claims at regional benefits offices in the West.

“The backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs is a national disgrace,” Hegseth, 33, said in an interview at The Orleans.

“It’s not a money problem. The VA’s budget has increased by 40 percent since 2009,” he said. “It’s not a number of claims processors problem, per se. I think it’s a bureaucracy problem. I think it’s a culture of mediocrity. I think it’s a lack of accountability. That’s a huge aspect of it.”

He said the approach by Congress and the VA has been to throw money at the problem.

“But if you’re pumping more money down a dysfunctional system you’re not necessarily fixing it,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we’ve seen: Larger bonuses for employees that are still not performing well, and multi-million-dollar computer systems that don’t work.”

Hegseth said the vast majority of the claims — more than 90 percent — are still being done on paper many years after claims processing was supposed to have been converted to a digitized system.

He said the federal department needs reform that should begin with giving Secretary Eric Shinseki and future secretaries authority to fire employees who aren’t performing instead of awarding bonuses when their performance is lackluster.

Whether it is requests from Congress for information or processing claims, he said, Veterans Affairs just plods along. Currently the House Veterans Affairs Committee has more than 100 requests for information “sitting at the Department of Veterans Affairs that have gone unanswered. Just ignored. And that’s for a House committee that is charged with oversight.”

“There’s no transparency. There’s no accountability. There’s very little efficiency,” Hegseth said.

Darin Selnick, a retired Air Force officer and former Veterans Affairs employee who is on the group’s organizing committee, said he knows from the inside how the department operates.

“The problem is there are a lot of good employees who want to get things right. Unfortunately, there are a lot of managers and career employees who are not very good at doing their jobs.”

The bus tour, Selnick said, will make people aware of the issues and what they can do about them. “We want to sign up grass-roots volunteers.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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