VA chief pledges to end backlog

| Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, 1:51 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs said it is making substantial progress in reducing the backlog of disability claims that has bedeviled it for years, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is confident of reaching his goal to eliminate the long waits by 2015.

“No veteran should have to wait for the benefits and services they've earned through their service in uniform,” Shinseki said at a roundtable discussion with reporters. “So here in VA, we've committed to eliminating the claims backlog — and as I say, not just reducing it, not just better managing it, but going after eliminating it.”

Overall, the backlog — defined as disability claims pending for more than 125 days — dropped from 611,000 this spring to 401,000 today, a 34 percent reduction highlighted by the secretary.

Despite the big drop, the department has a long way to go to reach the secretary's oft-stated goal to eliminate the backlog by 2015.

Veterans have cheered ongoing VA efforts to trim the glut in initial and supplemental claims. But a Tribune-Review investigation in May found that the agency is merely delaying a much larger problem: appeals filed by disgruntled veterans over claim decisions — called “ratings” — who say the VA got their decisions wrong.

The Trib found that while the typical veteran waits nine months for the VA to reach an initial decision on a claim for benefits, he or she faces delays 3 12 times longer from the next layer of agency review, the Board of Veterans Appeals. That internal VA court in Washington recorded a record 45,959 appeals at the beginning of the fiscal year, up from only 7,731 tallied 11 years ago.

As the veterans' population ages, more of them die while their appeals languish. Of the nearly 160,000 appeals before the board between 2009 and early 2013, the Trib found 2,936 cases in which veterans and sometimes even surviving family members passed away before the VA reached decisions. According to other recent VA documents, about 58 percent of the VA's pending claims are counted in the backlog. That comes after a year in which the department threw significant overtime at VA processors so they could target the oldest of the claims.

Because the VA processes its claims in its network of 56 regional offices, the service that individual veterans receive can vary widely. In the Baltimore regional office, for example, the recent backlog figure was 72 percent; in Sioux Falls, S.D., it was 33 percent.

Claims in Baltimore suffered an error rate of 23 percent; in Lincoln, Neb., it was 3 percent.

Shinseki, however, said he remains confident in the ability of his department to capitalize on its recent successes and keep chipping away at the backlog.

“We've done well — this trend line is in the right direction,” he said. “We've got to keep it going. I'm not dusting my hands off and saying this is a done deal.”

As for the regional offices that may be laggards, Shinseki said they “get a lot of attention.”

The VA has struggled for years to get a handle on the growing number of claims for disability compensation that it receives from recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well as those from earlier wars.

And although the department has continually told Congress and veterans nationwide that it is working to improve its problems, processing time and accuracy have remained far away from the department's goals.

Shinseki said he believes the backlog hit its peak earlier this year and is now finally on the right track; VA analysts had projected that recent peak, he said, and they are also projecting that the department can reach its goals within two years.

By 2015, the department wants to process disability claims with a 2 percent error rate; as of Sept. 30, however, the error rate was 11 percent, VA documents show.

Also by 2015, the department wants to get the backlog to zero — ensuring that no claim is pending for more than 125 days.

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