VA’s latest plan to clear benefits backlog meets skepticism

Sec. of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has been under mounting pressure over the agency's growing backlog of veterans' disability claims.

Credit: Getty Images

Iraq War veteran Tom Yasko is still waiting three years after he filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, making him one of about 250,000 potential beneficiaries of a redoubled VA effort announced last week.

Under the plan, veterans waiting more than two years will get an answer by June 18 and those waiting a year, within six months.

But Yasko, an unemployed former Army medic who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and an ankle injured during a firefight, notes that the VA has “lost my paperwork three times. … I don’t see what’s changed.”

He’s not the only skeptical one. Some lawmakers, VA workers and veterans groups also question whether the agency can reverse course so quickly.

“If they can do that, I’ll be amazed,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Democrat from Stockton, Calif., who this week joined 34 other members of Congress in calling for a new law to require quarterly reports about progress and problems at the agency’s worst offices.

The VA’s announcement came after the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed last month that the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits had increased more than 2,000 percent under President Barack Obama, with newly returning veterans facing some of the longest waits. CIR’s disclosure drew congressional concern and widespread media coverage, leading the VA to set a near-term benchmark for progress for the first time.

VA officials say this effort will be different. A directive from the agency’s undersecretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, instructs all claims workers who rule on disability claims to focus exclusively on 2-year-old petitions.

They are to be supported by as many additional staff, Hickey wrote, “as are needed to ensure that all two year old claims are processed within 60 days.” But the agency said no additional hiring is planned.

Once all 43,000 of the 2-year-old claims are cleared, workers will turn to the 200,000 veterans who have waited between one and two years for their benefits, a task Hickey said should take no more than six months.

“We’re going to make a decision for every single one of these veterans,” the agency’s Western regional director, Willie Clark, said in an interview. “They have waited too long already.”

Appeals, which account for about a quarter of the VA’s 886,000 pending claims, are not covered by the new effort.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the new approach sounds promising but expressed concern that the agency would “shift resources and manpower away from processing new claims just to clear out old ones.”

In a call with reporters last Friday, Hickey acknowledged that wait times for veterans filing their first claim on paper likely would increase while the agency turns its attention to older claims.

“That doesn’t make anyone coming home feel great,” sad Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has been calling for a presidential commission on the backlog.

“You still need a comprehensive plan and something that involves real presidential leadership,” he said.

Internal VA documents obtained by CIR show that in many American cities like New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, the average wait time for veterans filing their first claim – including those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – already exceeds 600 days.

Valorie Reilly, who has worked at the VA’s St. Petersburg, Fla., office for more than two decades, said the new guidelines reminded her of a decision the VA made in 2010 to dedicate about a third of claims staff to the roughly 250,000 disability claims filed by Vietnam veterans who said they were poisoned by Agent Orange.

The VA did clear those claims, but the backlog of other types of disability claims ballooned. For instance, one program designed to get newly returning veterans their benefits within 40 days of discharge from the military instead takes more than eight months, according to the VA’s performance metrics from February.

“It will make it worse – how much worse I don’t know because I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t see this as the silver bullet they’re looking for,” said Reilly, who is the president of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents VA workers.

Clark, the VA regional director, said the launch of a new computer system would keep delays from increasing substantially. But the Veterans Benefits Management System, which has cost taxpayers more than $537 million over four years, remains in the early stages of deployment.

Linda Benoit, who manages claims filed by female veterans at the agency’s Los Angeles office, said she had never seen the system. Reilly said that the agency only recently installed the system at its Florida office and that paper files still are being sent away for scanning.

Reilly said there is considerable confusion among workers about how the new effort will be implemented. A conference call set up to brief employees on the initiative crashed when too many workers joined the call, she said.

At a Senate Budget Committee hearing in Washington on Tuesday, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki added to the confusion by telling lawmakers that the agency would fast-track only claims with “clarity and documentation, where we can render a decision.”

Hickey’s directive instead instructs workers to give veterans a provisional decision based on “available evidence” – allowing disabled veterans to begin receiving compensation immediately if the agency considers their claims legitimate, with a more thorough review to follow.

Meanwhile, veterans across the country continue to wait. Among them is VA worker Benoit.

Benoit, a Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, has been waiting since July 2010 for a decision on her claim for hearing loss and PTSD. She hopes the agency will decide her claim quickly under the new policy.

“I know that those are the claims that we’re working now,” she said, “and we’re all working those claims as best as we can.”

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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