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.
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.”