Progress on Veteran Affairs Backlog Is an Illusion

August 29, 2013

President Obama's claim that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is "turning the tide" on backlogged disability claims is premature because the costly push to bring the numbers down is unsustainable and could doom those seeking benefits to years-long waits in appeals, according to veterans' advocates, says the Washington Examiner.

Drops in both the number and percentage of disability claims considered backlogged because they are more than 125 days old are real. But they have come at a high price in mandatory overtime and accuracy, representatives of veterans groups say.

  • There also are worries that the VA is using statistical or administrative tricks to bring down the numbers by changing what is counted and shifting staff from other critical areas such as appeals.
  • The backlog was defined by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki shortly after he took office in 2009. He vowed that all claims tied to military service would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
  • In August 2010, Obama called it a "moral obligation" to ensure disabled veterans got a quick resolution to their claims in a speech to the Disabled American Veterans.
  • Since then the backlog has ballooned. It peaked in March 2013, when there were more than 600,000 backlogged claims, about 70 percent of the total inventory.

By then, VA was under intense pressure from Congress, veterans groups, the media and the public to bring those numbers down. It launched a series of initiatives, including prioritizing older cases and mandating overtime for claims processors. Now the numbers are dropping. The most recent report shows there are 479,926 backlogged claims, about 62.6 percent of the total.

  • One quick fix announced in May was to require about 10,000 claims processors to work at least 20 hours of overtime per month. That is expected to cost about $44 million through Sept. 30, when the requirement ends, according to the VA.
  • That raises questions about whether the overtime was a temporary fix to respond to political pressure, says Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Agency officials say about 70 percent of the claims were approved, which is comparable to approval rates on standard claims. But that number is misleading, according to veterans' representatives. If a veteran has multiple medical conditions, and the VA grants benefits for only one, the agency considers the claim to be approved and closed.

Source: Mark Flatten, "VA Progress on Claims Backlog Is a Statistical Illusion, Vets Groups Say," Washington Examiner, August 20, 2013.

 

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