VA 'surge' closes out 97 percent of oldest disability claims

Friday - 6/21/2013, 5:30am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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Over the past two months, the Department of Veterans Affairs surge accomplished nearly all that it set out to do, processing all the claims that have been waiting for two years or more.

By the time the two-month operation ended this week, the department had processed 97 percent of all disability claims for veterans who've been waiting two years or longer, officials said Thursday. The department expects to reach decisions on most of the rest of the oldest claims within the next few days before it turns its attention to veterans who have been waiting one year or more.

As part of the focus on older claims, VA ordered that all of its claims processing staff work 20 hours of overtime per month for the rest of the fiscal year. As of this week, 554,000 claims still meet the official definition of "backlogged," meaning they've been pending for at least 125 days. But since May, the department says it's reduced the backlog by 10 percent, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said he's still committed to eliminating it altogether by 2015.

Thomas Murphy, the director of VA's compensation service, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week that the department has reached a "tipping point."

"We've seen a backlog reduction of 74,000 cases just in the last 45 days. That's a game changer," he said. "What's significant about those numbers when we're talking about such a large volume of cases is that in order to break the backlog, you have to be putting more work out the door than is coming in. We're there now, solidly and consistently, month after month now."

Effort sustainable?

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said Thursday that it's good news VA has finally handled most of its oldest claims. But he's skeptical that the department would be able to sustain the effort. He said the quick work also raises questions about how claims got so old in the first place.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)

"If I'm a veteran and I've been waiting three, four or five years, and then all of a sudden you can resolve my claim within 60 days, something's wrong with the system," he said at a Washington event on the compensation backlog organized by the group Concerned Veterans for America. "What I'm concerned about is that even though they have mandatory overtime now for a great number of employees, once they get the backlog cleared, if you haven't changed the leadership processes, we're going to have another backlog again."

Another important caveat: VA's effort to clear out the two-year old claims didn't include veterans' appeals of claims that the agency originally denied. VA does not include backlog figures for appeals in its weekly report to Congress, but the most recent statistics the department published, for fiscal 2012, showed veterans were waiting, on average, nearly three years for a decision.

Rich Dumancas, the deputy executive director of the American Legion, said in an interview with Federal News Radio that the VA announcement gives his group cause for hope. But like Miller, he said he's puzzled that the department dealt with the oldest claims so quickly after they'd languished so long.

"And we have concerns over the quality of the decisions they've turned out," he said. "One of the biggest concerns we've always had was if they could do this in 60 days with so many claims, why couldn't they do it two years ago?"

A spokesman for the Veterans Benefits Administration said it was unable to make one of its officials available for an interview Thursday. But officials have previously said the backlog was built in part by decisions to make it easier for veterans to connect their military service to their present-day medical conditions, including a 2009 decision involving Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. Now that that particular wave of new claims has subsided, they're able to focus on reducing the backlog, officials have said.

Poor policy decisions

And with the ongoing transition away from paper processes and into the electronic Veterans Benefits Management System, which VA now has finished installing at all 56 of its regional offices, the department believes the claims process will speed up significantly, become much more accurate and prevent them from falling back into backlog territory.

Anthony Principi, former secretary of Veterans Affairs

Anthony Principi, who served as secretary of Veterans Affairs during the George W. Bush administration, isn't so sure.

"I tried many of these same things a decade ago," said Principi at the Concerned Veterans for America event Thursday. "Insanity is to continue to do the same thing and expect a different result. If we continue business as usual, nothing VA does will solve the problem. No number of new claims processors will be great enough, no computer fast enough, no overtime long enough, and no shortcut quick solution will be able to deal with the ever rising tide of claims."

Principi doesn't believe the backlog is VA's fault and disagrees with calls to fire the department's current leadership. Doing so, he said, would be akin to firing the manager of a lighthouse because there's too much fog. He contended the major problem is the result of congressional and policy decisions that let veterans apply for and receive disability payments many decades after they removed their uniforms, and sometimes for conditions that he views as having a tenuous-at- best connection to their military service.

He suggested many of the disability claims VA now is handling have more to do with the human body's susceptibility to sickness with age than with harm incurred as a result of military service.

"And because these diseases get worse as a veteran ages, they have every incentive to reopen their claims, because there is no time limit," he said. "As a Vietnam veteran, I'll be able to file a claim for prostate cancer, heart disease or any other of the named diseases whether I get sick at 82, 92 or 102. If any of those diseases contribute to my death at any age, my wife will be entitled to get the same compensation as the surviving spouse of a young service member killed in Afghanistan last week. That claim is going to go into the same pile. Let's make sure VA's limited resources are focused on its core mission, rather than dispersed in an effort to remedy every problem imaginable for every veteran."

Better business processes needed

Peter Gaytan, the executive director of the American Legion, sees an entirely different problem.

Peter Gaytan, executive director, American Legion

He said Congress is entirely too focused on fixing perceived problems at VA's headquarters, while the backlog's birthplace is the dozens of field offices across the U.S. Some of VA's regional offices run extremely well, he said, while others are chronic contributors to the backlog because of inconsistent business processes from office to office.

"We need to educate ourselves beyond the Beltway," Gaytan said at the event Thursday. "Beyond understanding the language of a legislative proposal that's addressing this issue, we need to understand what problem that veteran's dealing with when he's sitting across the desk from our service officers. We need to understand why some of our regional offices are shutting off their phones and closing their doors three days a week. It's because they're overwhelmed. We need to understand why those problems are happening, and then come back and assess the process."

Gaytan said there is one thing Shinseki and the rest of his headquarters leadership could do to understand and fix the backlog problems: Visit rank and file staff around the country, ask them honest questions and, most importantly, make sure their supervisors aren't in the room.

"You have to be able to take the time to not only visit with your entourage and be told what the management at the local office wants you to hear, you've got to understand the complexities that the staff are dealing with and why they're having such a hard time dealing with them," he said.

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