Friday, November 28th, 2014

Gov. Rick Perry fulfills two promises to veterans

Gov. Rick Perry gets two more Promise Kept ratings from the Perry-O-Meter.
Gov. Rick Perry gets two more Promise Kept ratings from the Perry-O-Meter.

In November 2009, Gov. Rick Perry told an audience in Hewitt, near Waco, that state government would cut into a backlog of 38,000 pending benefit claims by Texas veterans.

We’ve put that pledge to our Perry-O-Meter, which tracks the governor's promises. We've also checked up on a related Perry promise — that the Texas Veterans Commission, a state veterans' advocacy agency, would hire up to a dozen counselors to work in teams on advancing Texans' claims to, and through, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Entirely too many of our veterans waiting on a response from the VA hear, 'Just keep waiting,' " Perry was quoted as saying in the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Well?

Perry said then he’d directed nearly $400,000 to be spent on employing the new counselors at the commission. That happened, starting in December 2009, commission spokesman Duncan McGhee recently told us. But by the end of May, that initial funding had dwindled to $7,949, and only two counselors were still being paid by the state.

"As employees left through attrition," McGhee said, the commission "determined that it was better to continue operating the program with fewer employees for a longer period than it would be to try and replace the employees."

And as of June 13, he said, the teams had pulled together 16,771 claims and presented them to the VA "for final decision or award action," reducing the backlog cited by Perry.

However, the overall number of pending cases still increased because of a factor not in play when Perry spoke, a federal official said.

VA spokeswoman Jessica Jacobsen told us the agency defines a backlogged claim as one pending more than 125 days. In September 2009, she said, nearly 38,000 claims were pending in Texas, 14,269 of them backlogged. This June, she said, 70,098 claims were pending in Texas, 45,530 of them backlogged.

That is, Texas claims are up 84 percent since 2009, and claims defined as backlogged by the VA have more than tripled.

Jacobsen said that a national surge in claims traces to the federal agency’s October 2009 decision to widen "presumptive" conditions tied to Agent Orange — adding Parkinson’s disease, ischemic heart disease and B cell leukemias — for veterans who served in Vietnam. She said the decision resulted in Agent Orange claims increasing by about 210,000.

In an interview, McGhee said Texas' temporary teams should still be credited with hastening thousands of claims that previously had languished. "Considering we are still fighting a war, (covered) conditions from previous wars are being expanded and it's actually a VA or federal problem, there is very little we can do," McGhee said.

Point taken. Significantly too, Perry never aired a goal of cutting claims by a certain number or percentage, saying only that the teams would take action on claims backlogged at the time.

McGhee said the 2011 Legislature did not approve the agency's request to continue funding the counselors in 2012-13.

We note, too, that Perry didn't say he'd keep counselors aboard indefinitely.

This is not a perfect picture. But we consider both Perry promises to be Kept.