By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — How exactly does the VA plan to address its claims backlog problem with a wave of new veterans entering to the system? Can DoD and VA handle the needs of the influx of returning troops transitioning out of the military?
These were among the questions on which members of two House committees pressed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a recent 2.5-hour congressional hearing.
The two sometimes were blunt in their responses. “This system is going to be overwhelmed. Let’s not kid anybody,” Panetta said at one point. “We are looking at a system that is already overwhelmed.”
Based on historical data, the problem will not resolve itself anytime soon. Shinseki predicted that VA’s requirements will “continue to grow for about a decade or … more” after the last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.
“Over the next five years, there is the potential for one million serving men and women to either leave military service or demobilize from active duty,” he explained in written testimony. “The newest of our nation’s veterans are relying on VA at unprecedented levels. Most recent data indicate that, of the approximately 1.4 million veterans who returned from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 67% are using some VA benefit or service.”
Further complicating the picture is the prospect of sequestration, which calls for $500 billion in cuts from defense spending unless a debt-reduction plan is agreed upon by Congress. If sequestration is enacted, it could mean cutting 100,000 military personnel from the DoD budget, and VA’s healthcare system likely would have to take up the slack. These cuts would be on top of $487 billion DoD cuts that are already scheduled to take effect.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki testify at a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees. DOD photo
“Whatever impacts [DoD] will have some effect here,” Shinseki told the committee.
VA officials have been touting the Transformation Campaign Plan as a way to improve the claims process, which has been bogged down with 558,000 backlogged claims, as of mid-July. In FY 2012, VA’s backlog reduction target is 60%. Overall, VA’s goal is to be able to process all claims within 125 days with 98% accuracy by 2015.
House members at the hearing seemed skeptical that the VA would be able to meet these goals, particularly with new beneficiaries entering the system.