The Department of Veterans Affairs said it is making substantial progress reducing the backlog of disability claims that has bedeviled it for years.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said he is confident of reaching his goal to eliminate the long waits by 2015.
“No veteran should have to wait for the benefits and services they’ve earned through their service in uniform,” Shinseki said at a roundtable discussion with reporters. “So here in VA, we’ve committed to eliminating the claims backlog — and as I say, not just reducing it, not just better managing it, but going after eliminating it.”
Overall, the backlog — defined as disability claims pending for more than 125 days — dropped from 611,000 this spring to 401,000 now, a 34 percent reduction highlighted by the secretary.
But despite the big drop, the department still has a long way to go to reach the secretary’s oft-stated goal to eliminate the backlog by 2015.
According to other recent VA documents, about 58 percent of the VA’s pending claims are still counted in the backlog. That comes after a year in which the department threw significant amounts of overtime at VA processors so they could target the oldest of the old claims.
And since the VA processes its claims in its network of 56 regional offices, the service that individual veterans receive can vary widely. In the Baltimore regional office, for example, the recent backlog figure was 72 percent; in Sioux Falls, S.D., it was 33 percent. Claims in Baltimore suffered an error rate of 23 percent. In Lincoln, Neb., it was 3 percent.
The St. Louis office that serves Missouri veterans appeared to be suffering above-average backlogs. Its error rate was 14 percent. Sixty-five percent of cases had been pending more than 125 days. Of all the cases on its books, the average number of days they’ve been pending is 189. And it takes 405 days, on average, to close a case.
At the Wichita office, which serves Kansans, the record was better. The error rate is 10 percent. Sixty percent of cases were pending more than 125 days. The average time for those currently pending is 171 days. And it takes an average of 323 days to close a case.
Shinseki, however, said he remains confident in the ability of his department to capitalize on its recent successes and keep chipping away at the backlog.
“We’ve done well — this trend line is in the right direction,” he said. “We’ve got to keep it going. I’m not dusting my hands off and saying this is a done deal.”
As for the regional offices that may be laggards, Shinseki said they “get a lot of attention.”
The VA has struggled for years to get a handle on the growing number of claims for disability compensation that it receives from recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well as those from earlier wars.
And while the department has continually told Congress and veterans nationwide that it was working to improve its problems, processing time and accuracy have remained far from the department’s goals.
Shinseki said he believes the backlog hit its peak earlier this year and is now finally on the right track. VA analysts had projected that recent peak, he said, and they are also projecting that the department can reach its goals within two years.
By 2015, the department wants to process disability claims with a 2 percent error rate. As of Sept. 30, however, the error rate was 11 percent, VA documents show.
Also by 2015, the department wants to get the backlog to zero — ensuring that no claim is pending for more than 125 days.
That’s the goal that has gotten the most attention from Congress, the administration and veterans groups. Veterans continually talk about waits that last several months to a year or two while their claims for disability benefits are processed. Veterans who appeal their decisions go into a separate system that can extend those waits far longer.
The backlog has grown as the VA has seen a massive increase in claims from veterans in recent years. Claims the past four years have topped 1 million a year. While some decisions might be straightforward — a soldier loses a limb in battle — others are more complicated, requiring extensive medical reviews and research to tie a disability to the veteran’s time in the military
The VA’s disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries during their military service. They range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month for a single veteran.
The VA said it is working to speed its decision-making process and is in the midst of an overhaul of its claims system. It is seeking to end its reliance on paper-based processing and reconfigure the way claims move through the regional offices that handle them.
“This year,” Shinseki said, “is a huge crossover point for us.”