On Monday, the familiar sounds of yet another Veterans Day echoed through a near empty Washington and across the nation.
First, a bugle's stirring notes reverberated above the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. Politicians at all levels offered heartfelt appreciations and noble promises everywhere people paused to remember.
But everyone who was honoring our military veterans on Monday knew that on Tuesday our military veterans were going to be on their own again. Veterans would have to battle their government just to get benefits, treatment and counseling they earned. After all, the Department of Veterans Affairs is still wallowing in a growing backlog that now totals almost 900,000 unprocessed claims.
On Veterans Day, an op-ed column in The Washington Post championed a very workable solution to the VA's backlog problem. And many experts on veterans' issues were more surprised by the idea's author than the idea itself.
After all, the article's co-author was R. James Nicholson, a former Republican National Committee chair who did not exactly earn a reputation as a problem solver in his two years as President George W. Bush's secretary of veterans' affairs. When Nicholson resigned in 2007, The Washington Post article reported -- in the first sentence -- that his tenure at the VA was "marked by the largest data breach in the federal government's history and sharp criticism of the care given to injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan."
Nicholson's column, co-authored by his former VA chief of staff, Thomas G. Bowman, propounded an idea that is sensible and smart -- just not new and not originally Nicholson's. Namely: The VA can wipe out its backlog and serve veterans quickly by adopting the Internal Revenue Service's way of dealing with taxpayer refund claims.
"When a taxpayer files for a refund, the IRS assumes the claim to be legitimate and refunds the money," Nicholson and Bowman wrote. "The return is, of course, subject to an audit later. If we can assume this about taxpayers, why can't we do the same about veterans and expeditiously respond in a preliminary way?"
As they detailed their proposal in the op-ed, there was one significant thing missing -- the name of the person who originated the idea. The proposal was first devised and detailed by Harvard professor Linda Bilmes in 2007. "The best solution might be to simplify the process -- by adopting something closer to the way the IRS deals with tax returns," Bilmes wrote. "The VBA (Veterans Benefits Administration) could simply approve all veterans claims as they are filed -- at least to a certain minimum level -- and then audit a sample of them to weed out and deter fraudulent claims."
Nicholson told me this week he had gotten his idea from Bilmes. He had a copy of her proposal and had talked with her about it. "She planted the seed in my mind," he said.
What did Nicholson do during his tenure to turn the Harvard professor's idea into VA policy? He said he sent a detailed proposal over to Bush's Office of Management and Budget but that's as far as he went and as far as it got.
"I couldn't sell it to OMB," Nicholson said. "I never talked to President Bush about it." Nor, he added, did he try to sell it to OMB Director Rob Portman (now a Republican senator from Ohio). "It was just done at the staff level," Nicholson said.
Today, a veteran who files a claim must wait an average of eight months to get the claim processed by the VA. Veterans tell bureaucratic horror stories about how the agency repeatedly lost records and documentation. Also, there are countless examples of claims that were initially denied by VA adjudicators only to have that decision ruled erroneous in the appellate process. And the case is then remanded back and the whole process starts anew.
In her 2007 Harvard paper, Bilmes estimated that if 88 percent of VA claims were paid within 90 days it would just cost the government $500 million.
The proposal for the VA to handle veterans' claims the way the IRS handles taxpayers' refunds was a bold idea when Bilmes first proposed it. And when Nicholson first offered it behind closed doors but didn't really battle for it.
Doing what is right and decent for those who fought our battles must be budgeted by the government as our true cost of war.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)