With the Department of Veterans Affairs facing a growing backlog of more than 900,000 disability claims, advocates for veterans warned Wednesday that pressure by the VA to reduce the numbers will increase the number of mistakes it makes.
The number of pending claims before the VA stood at 903,000 this week, up 50,000 from January and an increase of about one-half million from three years ago, numbers driven by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with complex injuries, and a policy change making it easier for Vietnam veterans to file Agent Orange-related claims.
“The tidal wave of claims coming in on VA is putting unprecedented demand on VA,” Paul Sullivan, representing the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee at a hearing on the disability claims process.
“When VA focuses attention on expediting new claims, VA exacerbates the already bad situation by increasing the error rate, leading to even more appeals and even longer delays,” Sullivan added.
Speaking at the hearing, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, (D-Tx.) expressed concern that the VA “culture overemphasizes quantity over quality.”
Sullivan said the VA headquarters in Washington is putting pressure on regional offices to quickly resolve cases. “What that causes is the VA to take the easiest way to resolve a claim, not the best way,” he added.
But Thomas J. Murphy, director of compensation service for the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, testified that the VBA is implementing a series of of training, process and technological improvements aimed to meet the department’s goal of processing all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
“We are confident that we are on the right path to deliver more timely and accurate benefits decisions to our nation’s veterans,” Murphy said.
Representatives of veterans service organizations said they welcomed VA’s efforts to reduce the numbers, but cautioned that meeting the goals would not guarantee that veterans are better served.
“It is essential that Congress provide careful and continuing oversight of this transformation to ensure that the VBA achieves true reform and not just arithmetic milestones, such as lowered backlogs or decreased cycle times,” Jeffrey C. Hall, assistant national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, told the committee.
The House veterans committee will maintain “vigorous oversight,” according to the chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).
“With two wars winding down and an increasingly aging veteran population, it is imperative that the much-touted technological and training improvements are set up correctly and used efficiently,” Miller said.