VA backlog files photo

In August, the VA’s inspector general said the weight of paper files at the agency’s Winston-Salem, N.C., office had compromised the structural integrity of the building.Office of the Inspector General/Department of Veterans Affairs

WASHINGTON – Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee demanded the VA share its internal performance data with Congress to give lawmakers a fuller picture of what is happening at the beleaguered agency.

But responses from Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, were so vague it was unclear whether the information will be turned over.

The request, repeated three times during a three-hour hearing this morning, came two days after the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the agency’s internal tracking documents showed its ability to provide timely disability benefits to veterans had virtually collapsed under President Barack Obama.

The documents, leaked to CIR and verified by the agency, had not been previously provided to Congress.

“This committee needs performance metrics … for us to do our oversight correctly,” Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s ranking Republican, told Hickey. He pledged to “fence off” the budget for VA’s headquarters until the data is shared with Congress on a monthly basis.

Hickey did not respond.

The documents obtained by CIR show that since 2009, when Obama took office, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for service-connected benefits had increased from 11,000 to 245,000 – a jump of more than 2,000 percent.

The VA says it has a plan to eliminate the disability claims backlog by 2015, but the internal documents show the agency believes the number of veterans waiting for benefits, currently at about 900,000, will hit a million this month and continue to rise throughout the year.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed skepticism during the hearing that the 2015 deadline could be met, noting that delays, and the number of veterans waiting, have continued to increase in the three years since the agency pledged to eliminate the backlog.

“Honestly when I look at the numbers … from my time here, things aren’t getting better,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Like Burr, he asked Hickey to provide internal performance data monthly.

“So answer yes to Mr. Burr’s question or no. I don’t want the stock answer. … I just want to know with a simple answer,” Begich said.

In her response, Hickey parsed her words carefully: “I will provide information to you,” she said. As she left the hearing room, Hickey declined to answer media questions.

In an email late today, a VA spokesman failed to clear up the matter. The agency “will continue to be responsive to requests from the committee for information in addition to the public reports posted online and quarterly briefings provided to members of Congress,” the spokesman said.

Veterans’ advocates were frustrated by the agency’s poor performance, and its lack of transparency, and said it was time for Obama to become personally involved.

In an interview, Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the backlog “the No. 1 issue” facing returning veterans.

His group has a White House meeting scheduled for next Wednesday, the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He said he hopes the president will attend.

During her testimony, Hickey said the VA is working feverishly to put into place systems that could substantially shrink the backlog, asserting that a new computer system will help the agency achieve its goal.

“The only way to go after this is to fundamentally reinvent ourselves,” she said.

But after spending four years and more than half a billion dollars on the new system, the internal documents show 97 percent of claims remain on paper.

Last month, the VA inspector general reported the computer system was not fully developed and could not yet support the entire claims process. When the agency showed it off to congressional staff last week, Burr said, it did not work.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told the Center for Investigative Reporting it was time for the agency to start firing people – especially “poorly performing employees and managers” who are a “drag on morale and productivity.”

A House committee hearing on the backlog is set for next Wednesday.

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Bobby Caina Calvan

Bobby Caina Calvan is the collaborations editor for Reveal. He was most recently director of operations for The Fund for Investigative Journalism, a Washington-based nonprofit that awards grants to freelance and independent investigative journalists. He thrives on watchdog journalism. He's worked in some of the country's best newsrooms, including The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, The Sacramento Bee and the Detroit Free Press. He's covered the war in Iraq, the national debate over health care, the 2012 presidential race and other high-profile elections.

While Calvan has worked in some of the country's biggest news outlets, his roots are firmly in local news. His career transcends platforms, and he has produced stories for print, digital, radio and television. He spent a year on a journalism diversity initiative in Nebraska called The Heartland Project, where he spearheaded collaborations with newsrooms across the state to enhance coverage of communities of color and LGBT issues. Inclusive journalism is in his DNA, and so is his strong advocacy for mentoring the next generation of journalists.

Calvan grew up on a dairy farm at the foot of the Ko'olau Mountains in Waimanalo, Hawaii – which might explain why he spent his first year of college at New York University and followed his sense of adventure into a career in journalism. He completed his college career at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in legal studies. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Aaron Glantz was a senior reporter at Reveal. He is the author of "Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream." Glantz produces journalism with impact. His work has sparked more than a dozen congressional hearings, numerous laws and criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Pentagon and Federal Trade Commission. A two-time Peabody Award winner, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, multiple Emmy Award nominee and former John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, Glantz has had his work has appear in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America and PBS NewsHour. His previous books include "The War Comes Home" and "How America Lost Iraq."