VA Backlog Elimination Slowed, Not Stopped by Government Shutdown

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By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — Despite dire warnings by VA officials, last month’s 16-day government shutdown did not halt progress on eliminating VA’s disability claims backlog.

In fact,the number of pending claims list declined despite the appropriations cut-off, although the pace of improvement slowed somewhat.

“We’ve lost ground that we have fought hard to take,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told lawmakers at an October hearing during the shutdown. “Roughly 1,400 veterans a day are now not receiving decisions on their disability decisions,” he said.

While the VA’s healthcare services continued to be funded during the shutdown, after the appropriations lapse, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) had “roughly five days of carry over funding available in its General Operational Expense account for staff and operating expenses,” Shinseki said in his written testimony.

Shinseki told a House committee that VBA had reduced the backlog of claims by 193,000 claims over six months through the end of September. “The shutdown directly threatens VA’s ability to eliminate the backlog,” he warned.

Despite those concerns, however, progress did not stop.

While on Sept. 28, VA reported 421,793 claims pending over 125 days in its system, on Oct. 26, it reported that the number had decreased to 405,656.

A campaign to eliminate the VA’s disability claims backlog suffered a serious setback with last month’s 16-day government shutdown.

In fact, the VA reported some reduction in backlogged claims every week in October, although the pace of decrease did not keep pace with that in September when the backlog was at 457,378 claims on Sept. 7 and dropped to 421,793 by the end of the month.

Before the appropriations cutoff, VA spent months touting progress in reducing the backlog through several successful initiatives. In May, for example, VA had mandated overtime for claims processors to increase production of compensation claims decisions.

Not only was overtime temporarily ended by the government shutdown, but Shinseki further explained that, as of Oct 8, VBA had to furlough more than 7,800 of its employees leaving 13,097 to process claims and provide other benefits activities. In addition, he said, the Office of Information and Technology had furloughed 2,754 workers.

Improvements Have Ceased

Before government employees returned to work Oct. 17, military and veterans advocacy groups had been vocal about their desire to see Congress find a solution to end the shutdown.

“With a record-high claims backlog and more of our soldiers leaving military service, we need to make it our top priority to ensure our service to America’s veterans is fully funded and operational. We cannot do that under this current government shutdown,” said Alma Lee, president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council.

DAV National Commander Joseph Johnston, meanwhile, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama and Senate and House leadership stating that the “time for posturing and playing politics with veterans must come to an end.”

“We call on all of you to reach agreement and expeditiously enact full fiscal year 2014 appropriations for all federal programs, services and benefits that directly or indirectly support America’s heroes, especially those wounded, injured and ill due to their service,” Johnston stated.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also told lawmakers in written testimony that progress on the reduction of the backlog was threatened.

“In recent months, we have seen a significant and laudable reduction in the backlog, due in part to a variety of factors such as the special claims processing initiatives, veterans filing more fully developed claims with the guidance of VSO service officers, mandatory overtime for VA claims processors, media attention, and public pressure,” according to the testimony. “But if the shutdown continues, we may not only see a slowdown of this trend, but a potential reversal of the trend. This would represent a major setback for the VA, for veterans, and for the country.”

Shutdown Leads to Second Round of Furloughs for DoD Civilian Employees

Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) Robert F. Hale

WASHINGTON — For DoD, the recent government shutdown marked the second round of furloughs of civilian employees.

With the first round ending in August, thousands of DoD civilian employees were furloughed again during the first week in October, before then returning to work the week of Oct. 7 after the Pay Our Military Act went into effect.

Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) Robert F. Hale told lawmakers at a hearing during the 16-day shutdown last month that, while most DoD civilians were back to work, employee morale was certainly impacted.

“In the first days of the lapse, commanders repeatedly told me that civilian workers were frustrated and angry, and I can’t imagine they’d be any other way and many say that they will retire and seek other jobs,” he said. “Low morale means low productivity.”

As for contract care, TRICARE released a statement noting that beneficiaries using providers in the private sector should have felt no effect.

“We know that those who rely on the Military Health System (MHS) are concerned about how the government shutdown might impact their health care and are taking appropriate actions to assure that our beneficiaries are cared for,” a TRICARE statement said during the shutdown.

The government shutdown did not deter the Oct. 1 opening of the Defense Health Agency, which provides a new structure that will manage the activities of the Military Health System and will create common business and clinical practices for the services.

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