Congressional leaders unswayed by VA promises
Pummeled in the media and on Capitol Hill because of continuing delays in processing benefits claims, the Department of Veterans Affairs instituted mandatory overtime hours as part of its pledge to resolve by 2015 a backlog estimated at more than 845,000 claims.
But congressional leaders remain unconvinced that the VA can make good on increasingly rosier projections and promises.
“They don't have a great track record,” Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Scranton Democrat, said in an interview with the Tribune-Review. “Look at what's happened over the last year or so. They say that they're reducing the backlog and meeting their goals, but they only have hit their targets in 11 of the past 52 weeks, based on the numbers we have.
“It's just further evidence of how far behind (they are) — and how far they're going to be behind, unless they stay on track,” Casey said.
An honorably discharged veteran who files a compensation claim related to getting sick or being injured or wounded in the service faces delays of longer than six months in most of the country before receiving an initial decision, called a “rating” by the VA. The backlog ballooned despite a 40 percent increase in the VA's benefits budget in the past four years.
With more than $140 billion in annual discretionary and entitlement spending, VA has more employees than any federal agency except the Department of Defense. Unlike the Pentagon, however, the VA was spared from sequestration spending cuts and employee furloughs.
Casey and Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, have emerged in recent weeks as a tag-team spearheading a bipartisan effort in the Senate to prod the VA and White House to end the backlog.
“You have 67 United States senators who rarely agree about anything, and they've come together. We're resolute and are doing this in a bipartisan fashion,” Casey said. “And when it comes to the actual resources, there's been a huge increase in resources. Now we want to see some return on that.”
Casey and Heller are motivated by the glut of claims and by especially long waits at VA field stations in their states for ratings on first-time claims. VA regional offices in Reno and Pittsburgh are second and third only to New York City in the length of delays — nearly two years — tallied while agency workers process initial claims.
When veterans disagree with agency ratings, a Trib investigation uncovered, their appeals drag on for years, rather than months.
On Tuesday, VA mandated overtime for the more than 15,000 workers who handle benefits claims, part of a “surge” of money and manpower the agency believes can eliminate the backlog by 2015.
Officials reported some progress, saying they trimmed the backlog by 2.6 percent in recent weeks.
“The key thing is what we're doing to move forward, and what we're doing (to ensure) that our veterans get the services they earned from their country,” said Kim A. Graves, director of the VA's Eastern Area claims operations, a territory that includes Pittsburgh's regional office.
VA officials say they've started getting results from an agency transformation that began in 2009 and has been rolled out in stages at the 56 regional offices. A centralized training program for claims processors, the implementation of quality-control teams and special mentors, plus reconfigured offices to streamline the system, are having an impact, they say.
The system, which is bogged down in mammoth stacks of paperwork, is moving toward using all-electronic records for new claims plus about 18 percent of others stuck in the backlog.
Appeals originating from VA offices encounter long waits — so long that many veterans die while their filings languish, a Tribune-Review investigation found. Between 2009 and 2013, the agency's Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington handled 2,936 claims involving GIs who died while awaiting a final decision. That's more than 500 veterans a year, or about one every 18 hours.
“From the secretary on down, every one of us recognizes that this is not acceptable,” said VA's Graves.
Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or firstname.lastname@example.org.