Is Washington Headed Down the Wrong Path to Fix VA Claims Backlog?

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved the fiscal year 2014 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs (VA) and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, which included a 10-point "Checklist for Change" intended to fix the backlogged VA system.

As of June 10, Veterans Affairs reported 816,839 pending compensation claims for service-related disabilities as the agency continues to come under fire for sluggish processing that has left wounded warriors waiting for months on end for any claims resolution.

Sixty-six percent of current outstanding claims are considered backlogged -- pending for more than 125 days.

Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) worked with MilCon/VA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) to develop the checklist that sinks $20 million more than the budget request into upgrading VA computer hardware, allocates an additional $10 million to pay overtime costs for claims processors "to increase production and efficiency," and requires additional training, audits, and reports.

“When our veterans return from war, they shouldn’t have to face a quagmire of bureaucracy in getting their claims processed,” Mikulski said. “The solution to this problem must come right from the top. That’s why as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, I convened a meeting with leaders from DOD, VA, Social Security and the IRS."

"Our committee insisted on a sense of urgency and a fire in the belly to get the job done," she continued. "The result is the 10-point Checklist for Change to the end the backlog included in this bill. It’s progress. But more needs to be done."

But representatives of veterans groups told a breakfast crowd near the Capitol on Thursday morning that the solution to the problem lies closer to the root of the backlogs: some offices perform better than others, and some stagnate at the bottom of the list.

The average wait time for claims processing at VA’s Baltimore Regional Office is 332 days. More than 16,000 claims, or 84 percent, are older than 125 days, the Appropriations Committee noted. The error rate of this office -- 26.2 percent -- soars over the national rate of 13.7 percent. Mikulski visited the office in February with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

American Legion Executive Director Peter Gaytan said while there's "no one real solution to this complex problem," it's not going to be found sitting behind a desk in the Beltway.

Those interested in reform should visit the claims offices performing well in addition to the ones performing miserably and sit down, open files, and talk to staff to do the research needed to chart a course forward, Gaytan said on a panel discussion at the Concerned Veterans for America event.

"You have to be able to take the time to visit.. you've got to be able to understand the complexities," he said.

Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, stressed there's "no silver bullet" that's going to fix the mess -- but the solution needs to include field hearings at regional VA offices.

"Let's go to where we're seeing the problems locally," he said.

Stewart Hickey, executive director of AMVETS, noted that "rearranging the deck chairs will not make things operate more smoothly."

The ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), told breakfast attendees that the backlog is an "embarrassment."

"We're doing everything we can, and consistently what we hear back is in 2015 it's all gonna be fine," he said in reference to the target date Shinseki has vowed will be the end of the backlog and the dawn of a 90 percent processing accuracy rate.

"I don't know about you but the math just doesn't work," Burr continued. "This is not a shot at individuals or an agency; it's a shot that people who process these claims don't see the face behind the piece of paper."