A top House Republican has raised concerns that the Veterans Affairs Department obstructed the efforts of a veterans group to evaluate claims processing at a Seattle regional office.
In a letter last week to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) accused a VA official of restricting the American Legion’s ability to “converse with claims-processing staff and thoroughly review disability-benefits claims in accordance with its long-standing practice.”
Miller said he plans to send congressional staffers to observe future quality-review inspections by the veterans group, which has made such visits to the VA’s regional offices for the past 15 years.
VA spokesman Drew Brookie said Wednesday that the VA is reviewing the issues raised in the letter and that the agency will respond to the chairman’s office.
Miller’s letter comes as the VA is wrestling with a longstanding backlog of disability claims. The number of cases sitting in the system without a determination for more than 125 days reached a high of around 600,000 in March 2013, but the inventory dropped to roughly 400,000 in February, largely due to an increase in overtime for processors.
“We are working to fix this decades-old problem and end the backlog in 2015,” Brookie said in a statement Wednesday. “We have made strong progress, and we know there is more work to do.”
The VA claims to have improved more than just its backlog. The agency also said its accuracy level has increased from 80 percent in June 2011 to 90 percent in November 2013. An American Legion official challenged the VA’s accuracy statistics during a subcommittee hearing in December, testifying that the group found errors with 55 percent of the cases it reviewed independently.
Miller said the VA’s alleged actions in Seattle appeared to be an act of retaliation for the testimony, adding that “any obstruction to external review of [the Veterans Benefits Administration’s] work product is contrary to both transparency and government accountability.”
Brookie said the VA “greatly appreciates the continued collaboration and effort of all our veterans service organizations and advocacy groups to better serve veterans,” and that the agency will “continue to work with our partners and stakeholders to execute our plan to end the backlog.”
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