Veterans Affairs Vows to End Backlog of Disability Claims

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.