Veterans Affairs officials want to speed the benefits appeals process, simplify their websites and hotlines, and fix lingering problems with outside care programs — all within the next 11 months.
Department Secretary Bob McDonald unveiled an ambitious list of goals for his department in 2016 during a Senate hearing Thursday, saying the moves build on continuing reform efforts already underway.
"Our goal is to be the No. 1 customer service agency in government," he said. "We know we have a lot to do to get there."
Thursday's hearing before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee came at McDonald's request, to provide more information to lawmakers about the corporate-style MyVA restructuring launched more than a year ago.
Many of those efforts so far have been internal planning steps, but McDonald is promising that veterans will see significant changes in their interactions with VA in the year to come.
Several of the goals point to continued issues of contention between Congress and the department. The number of pending benefits appeals cases has ballooned to more than 400,000 in recent years, even as the first-time claims backlog has dropped by more than 400,000 cases.
McDonald said he wants "a simplified appeals process, enabling the department to resolve 90 percent of cases within one year" by 2021. The move would likely limit veterans' ability to continually update their disability evidence but would provide quicker resolution to a process that averages more than three years for a decision.
The secretary also touted plans to expand health care options outside the department in coming months, in response to criticism from lawmakers over the slow and erratic implementation of the new VA Choice Card program.
"Our objective is that by the end of 2016, a veteran can go wherever they want (for health care) and it will be paid for," McDonald said. Doing that will require an overhaul of several outside care reimbursement programs, and consolidating them into a more efficient bureaucracy.
But both of those goals will require congressional cooperation and action, commodities that are difficult given the partisan infighting on Capitol Hill and the shortened legislative session this election year.
"You can have all the greatest ideas … but if you can't do what you need to do, we're just talking to each other," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Committee chairman Sen. Johnny Iskason, R-Ga., acknowledged that the appeals overhaul alone "will take significant legislative willpower, but it's not impossible."
Other department goals — such as updating the vets.gov website, modernizing VA contact centers and hotlines, increasing training for employees — won't require outside help. McDonald promised cultural changes throughout the department, repeating promises to put veterans at the center of all programs and priorities.
"We have an organization that is rules based, and we need to get an organization that is principles based," he said.
But lawmakers have been critical of the progress so far on that promise. McDonald fielded several complaints from senators of too few public firings of problem employees, and concerns that accountability issues threaten to derail his larger reform efforts.
"It's the little things that get you, not the big ones," Isakson said. "I admire your vision … but if we don't have a recognized system of accountability, it's not going to work."
McDonald promised to continue working closely with lawmakers in coming months, both on the proposals unveiled Thursday and ones coming as part of the president's budget proposal, to be unveiled Feb. 9.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for the Military Times newspapers. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.