By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Citing a fast-growing backlog of unresolved disability claims, veterans groups and members of Congress are calling for an overhaul of Department of Veterans Affairs procedures for handling cases.
The number of unprocessed disability claims has grown by nearly 100,000 since the beginning of the year and totaled 916,625 as of Saturday, a rise driven in part by increasing numbers of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.), who last week chaired a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee meeting titled "Can VA Manage One Million Claims?," said the department needs "a cultural and management sea change."
Veterans "are waiting to have their claims and appeals processed," Hall said at the hearing last Thursday. "They are waiting for compensation. They are waiting for medical assistance and rehabilitation."
The American Legion, the nation's largest veterans service organization, says immediate reform is needed. "As the backlog of claims approaches 1 million, and the needs of deserving veterans go unmet, VA can wait no longer to institute new and workable policies and procedures," said David K. Rehbein, the national commander.
But the VA contends that the 1 million figure is misleading and that, in any event, it is incorrect to refer to it as backlog.
About 234,000 of the unresolved cases involve claims that are awaiting adjustment. An additional 195,000 are on appeal, and about 79,000 are considered miscellaneous. The remaining 410,000 cases are original or reopened claims for disability compensation and represent the "core" of the VA claims inventory, said Michael Walcoff, deputy undersecretary for benefits.
"While we currently have approximately 400,000 claims in our inventory, the majority of these claims are not 'backlogged,' " Walcoff told the subcommittee in prepared testimony. "The inventory is dynamic rather than static. It includes all claims received, whether pending for just a few hours or as long as six months."
Critics accuse the VA of resorting to semantics. "It seems like they're looking at ways to minimize the significance of it," said Steve Smithson, deputy director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion.
"At the end of the day, these are still individual veterans waiting for benefits they were promised," said Meaghan Smith, a spokeswoman for Hall. "If you asked the veteran waiting, he or she would call it a backlog."
For Army veteran David Bohan, who fought with the 1st Infantry Division during the Persian Gulf War, the bottom line is that it takes veterans too long to navigate the system. "This is very frustrating and very time-consuming," Bohan told the subcommittee. "I understand why so many people just give up."
But the VA said veterans have shorter waits, despite the 13.5 percent increase in the number of claims since last year. The average amount of time to resolve disability claims is 162 days, compared with 179 the previous year, according to the VA. About 20 percent of the cases have been pending for more than half a year.
"They have made some progress, but it's still unacceptable," Smithson said. "They need to move forward and not try to explain it away."
The National Veterans Foundation said in a news release that it receives hundreds of calls each month from veterans stuck in the VA claims process.
"This isn't a problem that was created overnight," said Shad Meshad, president of the group. "It's been building for decades. It's bad enough that these young veterans are being held up, but the men and women who served in Vietnam are still getting the short end of the stick, 40 years later."
Some of the delay results from congressionally mandated reforms that force the VA to be less arbitrary about how it reaches decisions, according to testimony at the hearing.
The VA has hired nearly 4,200 additional employees since January 2007, but it takes at least two years to fully train them to process claims, Walcoff said. "We're only now beginning to see the full impact of those employees hired at the outset of this initiative," he said.
Subcommittee members expressed frustration at the rate of progress. "VA seems to be overwhelmed, and it is well past time for frank assessment of what is going on," said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the ranking member.
Walcoff said VA officials are "not satisfied with current performance and strive for new methods of improvement."