In May, the Department of Veterans Affairs began what it described as a “surge” to address the buildup. The plan required all VA employees who process disability claims to work a minimum 20 hours of overtime each month through September to tackle the delays.
The VA also began prioritizing claims pending more than a year as part of an earlier move to deal with the issue.
The Office of Personnel Management is wrestling with a large backlog of its own relating to federal-employee retirement claims, but progress has stalled on that front. Last week, the agency retreated from its goal of clearing the delays by the end of this year, citing a loss of overtime hours and a spike in retirements as obstacles.
The number of outstanding federal-worker retirement claims has dropped from 48,000 in late 2011 to about 27,000, but the decline has slowed dramatically since April, when the agency eliminated overtime for processors and trimmed call-center hours as part of an effort to meet its cost-cutting targets under the sequester.
The automatic spending reductions shouldn’t affect overtime for the VA processors handling disability claims because the agency is exempt from sequester cuts. Nonetheless, progress has proved challenging with an avalanche of new cases arriving since Obama provided greater access to benefits for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
A recent Washington Post report revealed that military personnel may have been exposed to the toxic defoliant after the Vietnam War. The VA subsequently reversed its decision to deny Agent Orange-related disability benefits to a former post-Vietnam Air Force pilot, suggesting the administration is relaxing its standards for such claims and that more cases may be heading into the pipeline.
Obama warned Saturday that continuing the sequester could jeopardize VA benefits, saying that “the best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of the sequester altogether.” However, the Budget Control Act, which created the austerity program, exempts the VA from automatic spending cuts.
The president also discussed plans to spend more than $100 million on new research into mental health challenges for veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. Additionally, he announced that 250 community colleges and universities had signed on to a program to help veterans earn degrees and certifications.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, commended Obama for addressing veterans’ concerns Saturday, but he said the president needs to hold VA executives more accountable for the agency’s problems. He cited the backlog in claims and an “emerging pattern of preventable deaths” at VA medical centers as examples of shortcomings.
“As commander-in-chief, President Obama is the only person in a position to hold [the Defense Department] and VA leaders directly accountable, and his leadership and personal involvement is essential to solving these problems,” Miller said.