The Department of Veterans Affairs announcement on Monday that it had slashed the backlog of veterans’ claims for disability coverage provided a rare bit of good news for an agency that has been rocked by scandal and controversy for years. The VA said the backlog has fallen 84 percent from a peak of 611,000 claims in March 2013.
Saddled by inefficiency, incompetence and outdated technology, it wasn’t that long ago that the VA staffers were stuffing thousands of applications for benefits in cardboard boxes or leaving them unopened in bins. Claims processors were swamped with 5,000 tons of paper every year, and some of them reportedly shredded or hid benefits claims to create the illusion of efficiency. Hundreds of thousands of veterans with serious health problems dating back to the Vietnam and Gulf Wars were waiting over 125 days – and sometimes much longer – for decisions from the department on their disability claims.
It was a nightmare for many suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and other serious war-related illnesses and injuries. Unfortunately it proved to be a forerunner to last year’s shocking revelations that 40 or more veterans died while waiting months for appointments to see a doctor or get tests at a VA health center in Phoenix.
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki – who was forced to resign last year as the waiting list scandal mushroomed – previously vowed to end the VA backlog of disability compensation claims by September 30 of this year.
While it’s unlikely the VA will reach that goal, the sharp decline in the previous backlog is a testament to what can be done when the government is willing to throw resources at a problem and embrace new technology to speed up the bureaucratic process.
Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for benefits at the VA, told reporters yesterday that the remaining backlog of 98,535 claims that are older than 125 days is at the lowest point since the department began measuring the claims backlog in 2007. Hickey insisted that the reduction in the backlog was not achieved at the expense of the quality of the reviews, according to the Associated Press. On the contrary, she asserted that the rate of accuracy in reaching decisions on disability requests had improved from about 83 percent in 2011 to 91 percent today.
Hickey said that much of the progress was achieved by requiring employees in the benefits division to work overtime nights and weekends, improved training of staff to increase efficiency, and making a dramatic switch to computers and paperless claims processing to save substantial time. According to the VA, veterans increasingly are filing their claims electronically. Veterans and their families can file applications online, upload supporting documents and then periodically check on the status of their claims.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chair of the House Veterans Committee and a sharp critic of the VA, praised agency workers for putting in a lot of extra effort during the past few years to expedite applications. However, Miller cautioned that there is still considerable work to be done.
"Given VA's history of hiding veterans off the books, we cannot forget the ongoing investigations into data manipulation and destruction of claims documents across the country," Miller said in a statement. Recalling the widespread problems veterans faced with bogus or secret waiting lists that kept many of them in medical limbo for months, Miller said that official figures reported by the VA “rarely tell the whole story.”
Moreover, Jacqueline A. Maffucci, research director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, wrote earlier this year that it’s important “that we’re not just focusing on the numbers, but also on the accuracy by which these claims are being completed.”
While the VA insists that it has improved the accuracy of its review and decision making, Maffucci cited a number of reports by regional VA inspectors general citing inaccuracies in the review and adjudication of claims.