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Veterans Affairs Vows to End Backlog of Disability Claims

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell describes backlog as “national disgrace,” demands POTUS hold VA accountable for disarray.

by
Bill Straub

Bio

August 26, 2013 - 12:00 am

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki maintains his agency is making headway in disposing of more than a half million backlogged disability claims, but a key Republican asserts progress isn’t coming fast enough and is prevailing on President Obama to take direct action.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, told a veterans group recently that the backlog is a “national disgrace” and that it behooves the president to hold the VA accountable for the disarray.

“An issue this important demands attention from the very top,” McConnell said during a presentation before the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention. “Veterans ought to be able to count on their government, and they ought to be able to count on their commander-in-chief.”

McConnell maintained that almost 750,000 veterans are affected by the backlog and that more than 60 percent of those have been forced to wait in excess of four months to get a response to their applications.

The situation exists, McConnell noted, despite promises from Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign to reduce the backlog. Efforts to modernize the VA’s claims system and a 40-percent increase in the agency’s budget have failed to produce the desired results.

But the agency countered on Aug. 19 that steps taken by Shinseki have resulted in a 20 percent drop in the in backlogged claims over a four-month period beginning in May, leading the secretary to insist that the agency is “on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015” as promised.

The VA considers a claim to be backlogged when it has been pending for more than 125 days. As of Aug. 14, according to the agency, the backlog stood at 490,000 claims out of 773,000 total claims pending. That’s down from a high of about 608,000 — smaller than the number claimed by McConnell  but four times higher than it was in late 2009 when backlogged claims numbered about 150,000.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, characterized the backlog as “unacceptable” but added that the report of progress in reducing the numbers is welcomed.

“No veteran should have to wait years to receive the benefits they have earned,” Sanders said. “We must remain aggressive and we intend to closely monitor the situation to ensure that the progress continues.”

The backlog was caused, at least in part, by an increase in the number of disability claims sought by veterans — more than one million a year in each of the past three years.

That has to do with Shinseki’s decision in 2010 to include heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and leukemia among the list of “presumptive” disabling effects from the military’s use of Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant used primarily during the Vietnam War that was found to be contaminated with dioxin. The VA estimates about 2.6 million U.S. military personnel have been exposed to the chemical.

That decision attracted criticism. Anthony Principi, who served as VA secretary under former President George W. Bush, is among the detractors, asserting that the maladies Shinseki added to the list could just as easily be attributed to old age as Agent Orange.

After adding the three issues to the list, Shinseki further ordered that claims applications from older veterans should receive priority. That decision effectively caused claims filed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to amass.

Officials further claim efforts to attract veterans requiring care for post-traumatic stress disorder, and an antiquated processing system, created huge headaches for the agency.

“We said all along it would take time to solve this correctly,” Shinseki told attendees at the same Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that hosted McConnell. “And we’re not going to leave this for another secretary or another president to wrestle with. The president wants this fixed and we are on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015.”

Speaking at the Disabled American Veterans Convention in Orlando earlier this month, Obama acknowledged that eliminating the backlog “has not moved as fast as I wanted,” adding, “that’s been unacceptable — unacceptable to me, unacceptable to Secretary Shinseki.”

But the president insisted “we’re turning the tide.” The VA brought in additional claims processors who are addressing more than one million claims per year. Organizations like the DAV are assisting veterans in filing their applications.

“We are making progress,” Obama said. “So after years when the backlog kept growing, finally the backlog is shrinking.”

The VA claims it is taking additional steps to address the ongoing problem. The agency announced in May that it was implementing mandatory overtime for claims processors at all 56 regional benefits offices through Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. In addition, as the result of a project introduced in April to expedite disability compensation claims for those who waited at least a year, more than 65,000 claims — or 97 percent — were eliminated.

The agency is further benefiting from the introduction of the Veterans Benefits Management System — a paperless software structure — and increased use of the Fully Developed Claims process, with assistance from various organizations like the American Legion, DAV and VFW, which ensures that applicants have all their paperwork together before a claim is initiated.

Republicans appear to be assuming a wait-and-see attitude toward the backlog reduction.

“When it comes to evaluating VA’s success in combatting the backlog, the two most important numbers are zero and 2015,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-FL, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “In other words, this problem won’t be solved unless the backlog is at zero by 2015, just as VA leaders have promised.”

Other lawmakers are looking to expedite the claims reduction. Sen. Bob Casey, D-PA, and Sen. Dean Heller, R-NV, in a rare show of bipartisanship this session, are forming a VA Backlog Working Group. The outfit plans to issue a report on how to better address the problem sometime in the fall.

Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
Well thank God. Finally, a politician makes a statement. Now, he can move on the the next topic and make another statement. Never let it be said that all the politicians in DC weren't willing to make a statement. I was beginning to doubt their abilities. Now I can rest easy. Maybe Squish McConnell knows somebody in DC in power that can do something?

Hey Mitch what were you doing last year? Have you got Boehner's phone number? If you people wanted to get some action you could pass a bill with a deadline and transfer bureaucrats to Alaska if this problem isn't resolved by Christmas. That might be more work than making a statement so you might need someone to go get you a cup of coffee first.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (10)
All Comments   (10)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
This is just another example of lawmakers passing a law to "solve" a problem. "Oh, we have to include these other things." But then, not preparing for the deluge to follow. They do not anticipate the response and get caught short.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki vows to endeavor to persevere.

Under the Obama regime, the VA's performance is a feature, not a bug.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Shinseki: The Incompetence Continues apace.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Any nation that fails to take care of its wounded vets and honor all vets is a despotism. Oh yea we got that already.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Has anyone thought to've asked the august politicians on the House and Senate Veterans Committee Members themselves to review the short-staffing problems at the V.A. which are obviously a major factor in these delays?

The V.A. Claims Staff certainly are not stalling on these cases. They're overwhelmed by the volume of claims.

These muttering politicians who in fact control the budget and staffing numbers at the V.A. are the ones to be grilled, not the V.A. employees faced with this human backlog.

Here I'll add [as a non-service-connected leukemia patient] that I've got nothing but the most sincere praise for all and each of the Staff and Doctors and the V.A. Medical Center at Martinsburg, West Virginia.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Though I know the VA in general has a lot of problems I want to chime in here in praise of our local VA clinic in Daytona Beach and also the local DAV chapter working with them. I have a problem with my knees that is service connected. Over the years it got worse until I finally had to go to the local VA for help. With the aid and advice of the DAV rep I got my claim processed and approved in about three months. At first my rating was only 20% but after about a year my knees continued to deteriorate to the point I am now rated at 40% disability. Agreed, when I applied for the reevaluation I had to have another xray taken as they couldn't use the one from less than two months prior and a claims specialist had to interview me and check out my knees but this was taken care of in clinic and was processed quickly. I am very happy with the service they are providing me.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Beyond disingenuous. The true delay is the Appeal's process. 2/3 of a year for an initial claim to be processed and awarded? Try appealing a decision made by the VA...it is not uncommon to have to keep fighting them for many, many years, to finally receive *fair* compensation.

Sure, they'll rate you initially within that year, generally unfairly low. If you appeal this (and most do, I did myself), from there ensues a nightmare of constant "more examinations required" (which are seemingly never enough for them), falsely hopefully diagnoses (up to "no change in condition," when a blind plumber could see the degeneration of condition and severity), lost paperwork (I once had paperwoirk disappear between the 14th and 15th floor of the same building - refile the appeal, a delay of an entire year as a result), what have you. It is endless.

there are people who were initially rated very low for serious injuries, appealed, and then had to spend the next 25 years - that figure is not a joke - to finally be fairly and properly rated.

Also, the records center in Saint Louis is expert at losing one's paperwork, and there goes much of your documentation. Numerous Veterans I know have had this happen. Mine have been missing for 30 years and I thank God that I had photocopied records before ETS, or they would have never rated me at all ("oh, sorry, no proof," as if your injuries and operation scars just appeared from nowhere).

This is the *true* backlog, the one they won't mention or discuss.

Not for nothing is the VA's unofficial motto among us Veterans, "Delay and Deny, until you Die."

I worked with homeless Veterans for six years, and during that time assisted quite literally thousands of them through the claims/appeal process (as well as my own, three decade experience with them), so I know precisely whereof I speak.

The claims process doesn't need to be "reformed," the entire system does.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well thank God. Finally, a politician makes a statement. Now, he can move on the the next topic and make another statement. Never let it be said that all the politicians in DC weren't willing to make a statement. I was beginning to doubt their abilities. Now I can rest easy. Maybe Squish McConnell knows somebody in DC in power that can do something?

Hey Mitch what were you doing last year? Have you got Boehner's phone number? If you people wanted to get some action you could pass a bill with a deadline and transfer bureaucrats to Alaska if this problem isn't resolved by Christmas. That might be more work than making a statement so you might need someone to go get you a cup of coffee first.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Don't press them, please. They may form a committee!
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, if there's one thing in DC that just screams efficiency is is a "committee".
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
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