Chairman Miller Statement, Letter on IRS Targeting of VSOs
For more information, contact: Curt Cashour, (202) 225-3527
AUG 29, 2013
WASHINGTON, DC – House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller released the following statement and letter today regarding allegations that the IRS is unfairly targeting veterans service organizations:
"As if we needed more proof the IRS is completely out of control. After illegally targeting innocent groups solely on the basis of their political beliefs, the IRS now appears to have America's veterans service organizations in the crosshairs. Congress has already provided for the tax exempt status of many veterans’ organizations in recognition of both the selfless service of their members and the important role VSOs play in honoring, remembering and assisting some of the most vulnerable and worthy among us – wounded warriors, disabled veterans, military families, and the widows, orphans, survivors, and dependents of the fallen. Allegations that VSOs are now being unfairly targeted by the very government they sought to protect and defend are nothing short of unacceptable to me." – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has spent more than a decade trying to develop weapons to neutralize chemical weapons, the threat that has the United States poised to launch a missile strike on Syria, according to military planning documents and officials.
The weapons, which would be attached to a bomb dropped from an aircraft, are supposed to neutralize chemical weapons where they are produced or stored. U.S. and western officials accuse Syrian President Bashar Assad and his government of unleashing chemical weapons on civilians. Hundreds of Syrians died Aug. 21 in a suspected chemical attack, and the Obama administration has said Assad's government is responsible for it.
What to attack — and how — are key questions for military planners. Four Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean carry cruise missiles that can hit targets in Syria. The U.S. Air Force has used its stealthy B-2 bomber to hit high-priority targets in Iraq and Libya and would seem capable of carrying such a weapon.
The Pentagon's interest in a countermeasure for chemical and biological weapons surged after the 9/11 terror attacks and the assumption that Saddam Hussein and other rogue leaders had stockpiles of nerve agents and biological weapons.
Pentagon budget documents show that testing of so-called Agent Defeat weapon continues. Getting one to work without causing more harm than good has been a struggle. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has spent tens of millions of dollars developing and testing the weapon. The Navy dropped out of the Agent Defeat program in 2005 because byproducts from its explosion proved toxic.
The agency continues to explore ways to eliminate chemical weapons safely, said Jennifer Elzea, a Pentagon spokeswoman. Details of current research and development are classified, she said.
The Air Force has two Agent Defeat weapons, CrashPAD and the Passive Attack Weapon (PAW), according to Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman. Instead of explosives, these relatively low-tech weapons use metal rods or fragments to pierce containers holding toxic chemicals, allowing them to escape.
To be effective in densely populated areas, an Agent Defeat bomb must destroy toxic chemicals without dispersing them.
In 2002, the Navy announced that it was developing the weapon and pairing it with bombs designed to penetrate fortified buildings. The Navy described it working this way: after bursting into a storage bunker, the warhead would spray copper plates at high speeds to tear into tanks containing toxic chemicals. Material within the warhead would burn so hot it would vaporize the chemicals that escape. A byproduct that explosion would generate chlorine gas, a disinfectant.
If successful, analysts say, the weapon would represent a significant step in the fight against chemical weapons. But destorying only part of the toxic chemical agents and spreading the rest would be a failure.
Syrian women, who live in Beirut, hold candles and placards during a vigil against the alleged chemical weapons attack on the suburbs of Damascus, in front of the United Nations headquarters in Beirut. Hussein Malla, AP
"The risk is that you would create a more serious mass-casualty event than what you were responding to," said John Pike, executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy organization.
A successful attack with the Agent Defeat weapon requires precise targeting. If chemical weapons are stored near populated areas, the need for a perfect strike increases, said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and military analyst at the Lexington Institute.
"If the weapons miss their aim points or don't burn intensely, they could disperse the chemical agents in a way that causes massive casualties," Thompson said. "The most effective way to render nerve agents and other chemical weapons harmless is to quickly incinerate them in a isolated location such as a bunker. If they are stored among civilians, there is great danger of collateral damage."
Since 2001, the government has trained, equipped and deployed more than 2.5 million men and women to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those who came home with brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder or other serious afflictions have too often found that the military's efficiency ended abruptly when they filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans filing a new disability claim can wait a year or more to get an answer from the VA, potentially costing them thousands of dollars a month in disability payments, even as they get VA medical treatment.
The backlog of claims more than four months old stands at almost a half-million. The delays used to be even worse: Under relentless pressure from Congress, veterans groups and the news media, the VA finally started shrinking the claims backlog this year. But the lethargic department doesn't plan to clear it completely for at least two more years, and veterans will still have to wait up to four months for an answer on their claims. That's a pitiful, unambitious goal, and there's deep concern that the VA can't even meet it.
Things got this bad because no one at the VA apparently had the wit to look at the numbers and plan for the enormous wave of veterans that would be coming their way. The problem is bipartisan. It began to get serious on President George W. Bush's watch and got worse under President Obama. Most of the causes are obvious: Huge numbers of vets filing claims, an antiquated system that keeps most records on paper despite a long-promised effort to digitize them, and a maddening disconnect between the VA and the Pentagon over getting veterans' medical records.
Efforts to fix the problem haven't always fared well. In 1997, an average VA employee processed 135 claims a year, according to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, but as of 2012 that had dropped to some 73 per year — even as the VA has hired thousands of new employees to handle the load.
The VA often explains the delays by noting that veterans' claims have become far more complicated, but the department has been making that same argument since at least 1994, when it told Congress the time to resolve claims had risen because of their "increasing complexity."
The department has done some things right. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki deserves great credit for initiatives such as making Vietnam War veterans eligible for benefits for medical problems stemming from Agent Orange and other causes. That made the backlog worse, but it was the correct thing to do.
And the department has worked hard lately to get the backlog under control, including requiring processors to work 20 hours of overtime a month. But the overtime ends on Sept. 30, which is one reason critics in Congress and veterans groups doubt the department will meet the goal of clearing the backlog by the end of 2015.
The debate over the problem too often seems sterile. Behind the numbers are men and women with real problems, many of them severe, whose best hope is help from the government that sent them to war.
USA TODAY reporter Gregg Zoroya put a face on the statistics recently by focusing on Mickey D'heron, a New Jersey firefighter and Army Reserve vet who served in 2008 and 2009 in Iraq, resulting in PTSD that cost him his job and almost cost him his family while the VA kept him waiting.
Stories like that should light a fire under the VA. Continuing to make ailing vets wait is a national disgrace.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature
President Obama's claim that the Department of Veterans Affairs is "turning the tide" on backlogged disability claims is premature because the costly push to bring the numbers down is unsustainable and could doom those seeking benefits to years-long waits in appeals, according to veterans' advocates.
Drops in both the number and percentage of disability claims considered backlogged because they are more than 125 days old are real. But they have come at a high price in mandatory overtime and accuracy, representatives of veterans groups say.
There also are worries that the VA is using statistical or administrative tricks to bring down the numbers by changing what is counted and shifting staff from other critical areas such as appeals.
"They really are struggling to try and make it seem like they're making progress, and I think they are making some progress," said Jerry Manar, deputy director for national veterans' services at the VFW.
"They're going to claim victory at some point, but there's still going to be a whole lot of veterans out there waiting for some or all of their benefits," Manar said.
The backlog was defined by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki shortly after he took office in 2009. He vowed that all claims tied to military service would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
Now the numbers are dropping. The most recent report shows there are 479,926 backlogged claims, about 62.6 percent of the total.
The downturn was well timed for the president, who spoke again at the DAV convention earlier this month and repeated his promise to fix the problem. The backlog dipped below 500,000 cases on the same day the president spoke for the first time since October 2011.
"After years when the backlog kept growing, finally the backlog is shrinking," Obama said. "And we are not going to let up until we eliminate the backlog once and for all."
One quick fix announced in May was to require about 10,000 claims processors to work at least 20 hours of overtime per month. That is expected to cost about $44 million through Sept. 30, when the requirement ends, according to VA.
That raises questions about whether the overtime was a temporary fix to respond to political pressure, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
"I am skeptical as to whether the VA's current strategy is a sustainable one," Miller said. "My main concern right now is that VA's primary focus is quelling the backlash about the backlog, rather than providing long-term, sustainable solutions to the systemic issues that created the backlog in the first place."
VA also prioritized its oldest claims, clearing 65,000 that were more than two years old with an initiative that began in April. Agency officials, who would not agree to an on-the-record interview, say about 70 percent of the claims were approved, which is comparable to approval rates on standard claims.
But that number is misleading, according to veterans' representatives. If a veteran has multiple medical conditions, and the VA grants benefits for only one, the agency considers the claim to be approved and closed.
That applies even if the major disabling condition is rejected or unresolved, and a minor ailment is approved. It looks good in agency statistics, but leaves the veteran no better off, said Joe Violante, legislative director for DAV.
"It doesn't solve anything," he said.
It might make matters worse because hasty rejections force veterans into an appeals process that typically takes three or four years, said Glenn Bergmann of the law firm Bergmann & Moore, which represents veterans with disability appeals.
"They are playing a numbers game," Bergmann said of VA. "They get credit for making a decision."
The number of appeals is creeping up. In March, about 250,000 cases were on appeal. The number is now more than 254,000. Veterans with the oldest claims rated under the fast-track initiative have a year to appeal, so a future spike is likely, advocates say.
Appeals are not counted as part of the backlog.
Also, in its push to lower the backlog of disability claims, VA has transferred experienced staff who would normally handle appeals to processing initial ratings, meaning delays will get worse, said Ron Robinson, president of the AFGE union that represents VA workers in Columbia, S.C.
"The appeals, nobody is working those," Robinson said. "Those are just sitting there."
Then in April, VA began highlighting the smaller number in orange, for the first time defining that as the relevant number in terms of Shinseki's pledge to eliminate the backlog.
Now the weekly reports no longer list the larger figure, which included things like claims for survivors' benefits after a veteran's death. That number is listed deeper in the report: almost 41,000 claims pending and 26,000 backlogged.
It is not highlighted in orange or counted in the backlog.
"The numbers are highly suspect," said Darin Selnick of the group Concerned Veterans For America. "Anytime VA releases numbers it's suspect because VA has a history of fudging the numbers."
Even if VA is being honest, and the quick fixes are sustainable, having a half-million veterans with backlogged claims, and another quarter-million with appeals, is still "atrocious," said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"This is not a time to start spiking the ball or saying we're turning the corner," Tarantino said. "Doing slightly better is not the same as doing good."