By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON – Assurance that VA is on track to eliminate its backlog on reviewing disability claims is being meet with skepticism by lawmakers as well as military and veteran service organizations.
With deployment of the agency’s new paperless claims processing system, progress is being made in addressing the claims backlog, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in a recent speech.
“My message to you is that VBMS [the Veterans Benefit Management System] is here, it works, we are on track to eliminating this backlog by 2015,” he said at a recent American Legion conference in Washington.
Meanwhile, at that same conference, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) said that “making overly optimistic projections about when and how the department can eliminate the backlog doesn’t help the department and certainly doesn’t help you, the veterans.”
Despite VA’s efforts to eliminate the backlog, Miller’s comments underscored a growing concern among some lawmakers and veterans groups that VA will not be able to meet its 2015 goal for completing the task.
At a joint hearing held recently by Senate and House lawmakers, Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said, “We are not optimistic that they will make the 2015 deadline. In fact, if I were a betting man, which I am not, I would say they are not going to. This is a very complicated problem.”
Bruce McKenty, national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), pointed out to lawmakers that the VA is backlogged “at more than 886,000 claims.”
“MOPH is concerned that, given the large numbers of military members returning from ongoing conflicts, the load on the VA claims system will only increase,” he said in written testimony.
Addressing the Backlog
In his speech, Shinseki said that VA is processing 1 million claims each year and has processed 4.1 million claims during the past four years. While calling that an “unprecedented number of claims,” he also acknowledged that new claims keep coming through the doors.
“Even as we process those 4.1 million claims going out the door, another 4.6 million claims flowed back in – paper claims,” he told the American Legion.
A Claims Transformation Plan, introduced by VA, changes how staff is trained and organized to do the work and enhances technology and processes. VA’s new automated Web-based paperless processing system, which is on track for full deployment to all of its regional offices by the end of 2013, is a major element of the transformation plan.
“We must automate and get out of paper, and we are in the process of doing that,” Shinseki said.
Veterans groups say the deployment of the paperless processing system might not be enough to break the backlog.
“You can have the best VBMS system in the world, we can field it this year, we can get it out there and start using technology as effectively as possible, but at the end of the day, just like in the armed forces, you have got to recruit quality people, you have to train them to standard, you have to offer them incentives to do this difficult business and you have to have excellent supervisors to guide them and mentor them along the way,” Robert Norton, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, told lawmakers at the hearing.
Sgt. Maj. H. Gene Overstreet, president of the Non Commissioned Officers Association of the United States of America, suggested that, because of the backlog, VA should be given discretionary authority to pay a partial monthly advance so veterans awaiting claims response will have assets for immediate financial needs.
“Tragically, there are too many disabled veterans whose claims are a part of the backlog that are forced to seek advocates for public assistance for basic necessities such as food, to pay their rent/mortgage, to pay utility bills. Their sacrifice for the nation warrants the expeditious processing of their claims,” he said in written testimony.
Lawmakers said the backlog was an issue that they will be addressing in upcoming hearings.
“The good news is that they are processing 1 million claims a year, far more than they used to. The bad news is that they are getting 1.2 million claims coming in, so the backlog is growing,” Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said in a written statement at the hearing. “This is an issue I feel very strongly on … we don’t want to see veterans waiting months and months and months or years to get their claims adjudicated.”