I often noticed during the Vietnam Misunderstanding that all the bigwigs would get together down at 7th AF HQ at Tan Son Nhut Airpatch and collaborate on a “new” or improved plan to win the war. This happened so frequently that they were always coming or going. If they weren’t at 7th AF , they were over at Westmoreland’s hacienda or MACV HQ. The plan du jour changed more frequently than a baby’s diaper.
One thing perennially bandied about was “Strategic” plans. All the planning in the world was just a response to a new trend. Everything thus became a reaction to an action on the NVA or VC’s part. Much as a bullet ricochets wildly and with no apparent trajectory, so too did the REMFs react to the latest perceived “trend”. If bombing them into the stone age wasn’t working, the honchos would suddenly concentrate on infrastructure like bridges or the Ho Chi Minh trail at the extreme westernmost terminus of the DMZ (Laos). If that didn’t seem to get their attention, Agent Orange spraying was stepped up. If killing the rice didn’t work, massive amounts of CBUs were employed with time delays like the famous CBU-26/49s. They’re still picking them up as I write this and the maiming and amputations forty years later are testimony to the failure. Laotians call them bombis. I’m sure the Cambodians have a word that conveys the same thing.
Similarly, we see the same strategic planning being employed by the Veterans Benefits Administration. If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume they transplanted Gen. Momyer and the the 7th AF wise men lock stock and barrel over to 810 Vermin Ave. NW and gave them carte blanche to weave their magic. There, in an eerily similar pattern, they are cranking out flow charts, expected benefits delivery schedules, Regional Office availability and accuracy numbers, projected launch dates, expected compliance dates, and expected data confirmation dates that will prove each and every facet of this strategic “re”-organization.
I remember well the time McNamara forecast the NVA’s downfall. Like any true Detroit Car manufacturer CEO, he had it down to a date-give or take six months. In a more perfect world of car bumper production, engine availability and a guaranteed supply source, he would have provided a concrete date for any vehicle’s availability. In war, the only given is that it will take longer than anyone ever dreamed of. Hence, when they ran out of MK-82 500 lb. dumb bombs in 1967 and the war was just warming up, there was some heated controversy. We were forced to go out and pay $900 each for all the MK-82s we’d sold Germany at $58 each back in the early fifties. Munitions factories who were told to hold off on ramping up 5.56mm X 45mm M 16 ammo production were suddenly exhorted to go into full blown production as soon as humanly possible. Sound familiar?
The Veterans Administration is taking the same tack. The orchestration for the current disaster appears as though it was lifted page for page from the Vietnam debacle. Fiddling confidently while Rome burned, VA watched as we ratcheted up our war plans in 2001 hard on the heels of the Kuwait/Iraq imbroglio. No plans were formulated to even consider an electronic records conversion in spite of the fact that VA was the lone government holdout in this respect. In splendid isolation, VA continued to do business much as their forebears did in the eighteenth century. They did graduate from quill and inkpot to more modern writing utensils.
Even when it became evident that change was needed, the good Dr. Peake, appointed by W43 made few, if any, changes that would prepare the Veterans Administration for the tsunami of future claims. As an aside, you simply cannot put hundreds of thousands of troops under arms and not have a corresponding increase in collateral damage. With improvements to medical science, the number who survived what would be considered fatal injuries in the past, now were arriving at the Landstuhl Humpty Dumpty Clinic and getting a second chance-albeit somewhat abbreviated or physically truncated.
VA continued to bone up on their musical talents at the expense of Veterans until it could be ignored no more. Now we are witnessing the Helter Skelter technology VA has inaugurated in the second decade of the twenty first century. VA has just released their new Strategic Plan to Eliminate the Compensation Claims Backlog and are very proud of it. Every contingency has been accounted for. Every wrinkle has been smoothed. Like a seamstress before opening night on Broadway, they stand with iron, thread and needle in hand waiting for a wardrobe malfunction. And well they should.
Imagine dial up computer log-on in the nineties. Remember getting booted off unceremoniously for no reason? How about watching the little hourglass or circle go round and round? Et voilà! Welcome to VBMS. Try viewing a C-file when you finally get it back from the vendor who scanned it preparatory to your adjudicating it. Better yet, try viewing it with five tabs opened to different parts of it. Can you say VBMS crash? Sure. I bet you can. Go ahead and try sounding it out.
VSRs who I speak with (who surreptitiously contact me via the AFGEwebsite) tell of horrendous delays and server issues the likes of which we used to suffer decades ago in our dial up days. Frustration is so rampant that many just pay lip service to this mode and sashay electronically over to the copier to construct an illicit paper version in order to decipher it all.
Much like the fabled air war described above, simply stating that dropping 12 (or 18, or 28) VAROs into the VBMS mode will strategically change claims adjudications as we know it is akin to smoking some really good Maui Wowie followed by strapping on the rose-tinted sunglasses. Nothing changed but it looks better.
Meaningful change at the VA is coming. Make no mistake. It is long overdue and trying to rush a new product onto the market is fraught with unforeseen glitches. Ask Boeing about their new 787 batteries. Similarly, simply pronouncing that henceforth the wicked witch is dead comes with some codicils. There are 58 witches- some of which live in towns with lots of Veterans. Were we faced with converting just Fort Harrison and Sioux Falls over to VBMS, this would have been a cakewalk. Reality is a harsh taskmaster. When your planning committee has no depth like San Diego’s backfield, you need to bring in the pros from 3M and Microsoft. VA is loathe to do this. They are an “in house” club as most in the government are. They hate to delegate authority and prefer to use their own geek squad. The mentality is simple. “We have a complex system here that requires a ‘hands on’ proactive approach. No one else has the depth and finesse to accomplish this.” Therein lies the dilemma. VA feels there’s always something on the shelf to fill the bill.
Finally faced with the impossibility of scanning katrillions of pieces of paper into meaningful electronic records, they ordered out like a chinese takeout. No strictures were employed. No parameters were announced. Simply a “Take them out. Be careful and don’t lose them like we do. Scan them and bring them back. Order? We don’t care what order they’re in.”
Phase Two began an orderly scanning so they were more organized by left side, center side and right side. Phase Three was even more specific by asking for the grouping of STRS and medical evidence in a specific spot without a concerted effort to hunt all day for them. At some point I suspect a note might have appeared in the suggestion box proposing a table of contents. I might be premature on that one. My AFGE confidante isn’t sure they’ll implement it soon without additional Aspire training back in Baltimore.
While I compliment VA for their concerted and belated effort to come to grips with this problem, no one can say it was a surprise. They have been in this business for several centuries and I’d think they would absorb some of the more nascent technology as it became available. Better late than never? Yes, but by the same token, when given this golden opportunity to seize the high ground, it seems incongruous to take the least savvy path to excellence. Considering the vast quantities of money they have thrown at this and the relatively paltry returns, one might expect some serious introspection. Not the VA. Their solution? Hey, let’s go down to Orlando and have a conference and learnathon complete with VBMS karaoke. Hire a Patton lookalike for $80 K. Teach claims adjudication on the golf course.
There have been some who clammer for Shinseki’s head and Hickey’s as well. Idiot’s delight. Just when they are starting to comprehend the magnitude of the problem and come up with viable solutions, the headhunters show up and demand blood. The problem is myopia and it began aeons ago. We finally fitted them out with glasses and they can see the problem. It would be asinine now to fire the ones best equipped to solve the dilemma. It would certainly feel good but that would be followed by more confusion and a new strategic outline on how to cure the problem.
Let’s face it. We’ve been strategized to death by the bean counters. In construction, at this stage, one often hears the refrain “It’s time to shoot the engineers and begin production.” VA blithely passed that milestone in 1946. They have continued to ignore the obvious, impending signs and fiddled enough to compose innumerable concertos. The intermediate deadwood at the Central Office that dreams up all this foolishness and attempts to keep it in house has to go. It’s hard to think outside the box when the definition of “box” has so many people defining it. Put another way, I suspect we have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Ooops. Indigenous Native Americans predisposed to living on the North American continent.
THEY DO not want it to work, or it would, THEY just wait for all those vaccines to creep up on you and then your so sick, you cant fight them, They make money for all the meds your on, and all the cool experiments They get to do to you, Most never live long enough to understand what is really going on, a DOG and PONY SHOW, We honored our oath, THEY did not.