The more complex claims were often set aside by workers so they could keep their jobs, meet performance standards or, in some cases, collect extra pay, said VA claims processors and union representatives. Those claims now make up much of the VA’s widely scrutinized disability claims backlog, defined by the agency as claims pending more than 125 days.
“At the beginning of the month . . . I’d try to work my really easy stuff so I could get my numbers up,” said Renee Cotter, a union steward for the Reno, Nev., local of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
Now, claims workers said, they fear the VA’s aggressive new push to finish all one-year-old claims by Oct. 1 — and eliminate the entire backlog by 2015 — could continue the emphasis on quantity over quality in claims processing that has often led to mistakes. VA workers have processed 1 million claims a year for three years in a row.
Beth McCoy, the assistant deputy undersecretary for field operations for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), said bonuses for claims processors were justified because, even though the number of backlogged claims was rising, workers were processing more claims than ever.
“There are many, many employees who are exceeding their minimum standards, and they deserve to be recognized for that,” she said.
She also said the VBA is improving quality even as it processes more claims.
But documents show that a board of appeals found in 2012 that almost three out of four appealed claims were wrong or based on incomplete information.
Approximately 14,000 veterans had appeals pending for more than two years as of November.
The VA has promised to reduce wait times and improve accuracy by scanning the piles of paper claims into an electronic system for processing with new software, but the expensive transition has been beset with problems.
The workload for VA claims workers also has doubled in the past five years. This included new claims from a quarter-million Vietnam veterans in 2010, when the VA added B-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease to the growing list of health conditions for which veterans can claim because of exposure to the toxic chemical Agent Orange in Vietnam. In addition, more than 830,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans returning home had filed claims as of March, according to VBA data.
According to 2012 data, the VA employed more than 11,000 claims processors or assistants. Most handle disability claims, while some deal with claims such as those for education and other benefits.