By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — After months of pressure from lawmakers and veteran advocacy groups, VA is reporting progress in reducing the disability claims backlog.
“We are on track to meet our agency priority goal of eliminating the backlog of claims — those pending longer than 125 days in 2015,” Stephen Warren, VA acting assistant secretary for Information and Technology said last month at a joint hearing of two House committees.
As of July 8, VA had 523,164 pending claims in inventory more than 125 days old. Warren told lawmakers that the total inventory of pending claims is below 800,000, the lowest since April 2011.
“The backlog of claims has been reduced by more than 14% from its highest point just four months ago,” he said at the combined hearing for the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “For the second month in a row, VA claims processers set production records by completing more claims than in any previous monthly period.”
Some lawmakers continue to question whether the agency can reach the goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel publicly reiterated their commitment to the goal at a press conference this spring.
“With the president’s leadership and the support of the Congress, we are aggressively executing a plan that we have put together to fix this decades-old problem and eliminate the backlog as we have indicated in 2015, and by that, I mean no claim being processed longer than 125 days, and our quality of performance at 98% or better,” Shinseki said.
Hagel added that the agencies were “moving in the right direction.”
“I want to assure you, as I have Secretary Shinseki and members of Congress, that DoD will be a full partner, a responsible partner, understanding our piece of this, and we intend to be successful,” he said.
Meanwhile, VA created new initiatives for progress in tackling the backlog in recent months. One of those is the initiative, introduced in April, to direct claims-raters to make provisional decisions on the oldest claims in the inventory first. Veterans can submit additional evidence for consideration a full year after the provisional rating is given. If no further evidence is received during that year, the claims rating is made final.
Additionally, in May, VA announced that it had mandated overtime for claims processors in its 56 regional benefits offices through the end of FY 2013, in an effort to increase production of compensations claims decisions.
A new online application known as eBenefits will enable faster processing of claims moving forward, VA officials said. EBenefits is a joint VA-DoD Web portal that allows veterans to upload digital images of records and evidence to support their claims. The new application, now available, integrates with the new Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) electronic claims processing system.
“There are so many advantages to making this move from paper to digital for both veterans and VA,” Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey said in a written statement. “Veterans can now file their claims online through eBenefits like they might do their taxes online.”
Despite VA’s efforts, lawmakers continue to press for new legislation to address the backlog and reform the claims-processing system. A bill introduced by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, would establish an independent task force or commission to analyze VA’s disability benefits claims processing system.
“I think what we need is an outside independent analysis to clearly identify first why the backlog exists and even as important, if not more so, to prevent the backlog from ever occurring again,” Miller said at a recent hearing.
Meanwhile, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), introduced a bill that, in his words, “addresses the GAO-identified factors that contribute to the lengthy processing times of disability claims, improves congressional oversight of the VA’s efforts to reduce the backlog and requires VA to end the backlog by Memorial Day 2015.”
“With increasing frequency, frustrated veterans I represent complain to me about waiting months, even years, for a decision on their disability claim,” he said during a recent House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs meeting.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has introduced a bill designed to “provide long-term reforms to improve VA’s claims process from the point of start of the process at the regional offices to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.”
Sanders’ bill, the Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2013, would “enable Congress to conduct more comprehensive oversight of VA’s progress and transformation by requiring VA to publicly report, on a quarterly basis, information on both VA’s quarterly goals and actual production,” according to a written statement.