The Washington Post

Veterans Affairs’ claims backlog down 44 percent since peaking one year ago

The Department of Veterans Affairs has cut its backlog of pending disability benefit claims by 44 percent since saying in March 2013 that its caseload had reached a “tipping point,” but some veterans organizations are challenging the accuracy of the agency’s numbers.

The latest VA data, released Monday, show that the number of claims stuck in processing for more than 125 days had dropped to 344,000, compared with a high of about 611,000 a year ago.

The department said in a statement Monday that it also has improved its determinations accuracy from 83 percent in 2011 to 91 percent last month and shortened the average wait time for decisions from 282 days to 119 days since March 2013.

“No veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said in the news release, adding that “we still have more work to do.”

Veterans groups have challenged the department’s accuracy claims in recent months. American Legion official Zachary Hearn said at a congressional hearing in December that his organization found errors with 55 percent of the cases it had reviewed.

Hearn said in an interview Monday that Veterans Affairs has “greatly reduced the claims backlog, but we still have concerns with accuracy and the rapid manner in which they are adjudicated.”

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Tuesday that he is monitoring the accuracy matter.

“I think it’s a legitimate concern, and one we want to look at,” he said. “We don’t want to sacrifice accuracy for speed.”

VA spokesman Drew Brookie said Tuesday that the department’s accuracy-review program meets “the highest industry standards” and that the Institute for Defense Analyses has verified its soundness. The nonprofit group provides technical expertise to national security agencies.

The number of backlogged cases — those that have reached the 125-day threshold — skyrocketed during the Obama administration, with the growth largely the result of an influx of claims from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and new rules that allowed more Agent Orange claims to be filed.

The administration set a goal last year of eliminating the backlog by 2015, implementing an “overtime surge” for processors, prioritizing the oldest claims and training more employees to deal with ­cases.

The department also began a gradual switch to digital claims processing shortly after Shinseki took office in 2009. It said Tuesday that more than 80 percent of its disability claims are now in a digital format.

“There’s no question they have undertaken a huge and almost unprecedented transition with a cumbersome paper system,” Sanders said. “I think we are seeing the benefits of that transition.”

Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, attributed the progress to “fixing predictable and preventable issues,” adding that the hundreds of thousands of remaining ­cases prove that “we are a long way from declaring victory.”

As of September, the number of appeals had grown by 50 percent — to more than 250,000 cases — since Obama took office. The Board of Veterans Appeals has said its caseload will probably double before 2018.

President Obama vowed in his 2014 State of the Union address to continue the recent progress in trimming the overall backlog.

His 2015 budget requests $2.5 billion for the VA division that handles benefits, an increase of about $28 million over this year. The budget also requests $138.7 million for a “Veterans Claims Intake Program” to reform and speed up processing.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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