March 11, 2013; Source: Center for Investigative Reporting

The NPQ Newswire has followed veterans’ organizations very closely. Sometimes, nonprofit veterans’ groups have been the victims of terrible scams and malefactors (see, for example, here and here). At other times, such organizations have demonstrated themselves to be intrepid defenders of veterans’ interests (see, for example, here and here). In addition, some veterans’ organizations have emerged as vocal public policy advocates (for instance, see here and here). Now, an excellent piece from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) serves as a testament to the need for vigorous and capable veterans’ nonprofits.

CIR reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) “ability to quickly provide service-related benefits has virtually collapsed under President Barack Obama” and that “delays newly returning veterans face before receiving disability compensation and other benefits are far longer than the agency has publicly acknowledged.” The latter point is a black mark on the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency and honesty.  According to CIR, the VA says that the average wait time is 273 days, which is pretty horrible in and of itself, but the agency data indicates that the actual wait time is between 316 and 327 days on average.

The wait time for veterans’ services is also much longer, on average, in New York City (642 days), Los Angeles (619 days), and Chicago (542 days). The number of veterans waiting a year or more for their benefits grew from 11,000 in 2009, when President Obama took office, to 245,000 in December of 2012. The total number of veterans waiting for benefits is over 900,000 and is expected to top one million by the end of March. CIR reminds us that candidate Obama promised to fix a “broken VA bureaucracy.” Based on CIR’s reporting, it seems like the fix is a long way off. The White House didn’t respond to CIR’s calls for comment. 

There are probably some limited explanations for the increasing backlogs. We suspect there must be more veterans filing with the VA as a result of the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but nothing justifies this kind of treatment for the men and women who have slogged through these wars. The White House has made a big deal about the Joining Forces initiative of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, which is meant to “recognize, honor and serve military families,” but a dysfunctional, disintegrating Veterans Administration more than undoes anything they are accomplishing with their charitable initiative.

This is why a strong and vibrant nonprofit sector is more often needed not just as a partner of government, but as a government critic and watchdog. The nonprofit CIR’s story about the VA reminds us that the nonprofit sector is and should be attentive to its role as the “third sector,” distinct from the for-profit business sector and distinct from the governmental sector. The sector’s independence is necessary to hold both to standards of performance and accountability that they often fall short of. –Rick Cohen