Specials: VA Disabilities

MAKING AMERICA'S HEROES WAIT: Benefit claims backlog not our fault, VA officials say

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,VA Disabilities,Veterans Affairs

Fourth of a five-part series

Rep. Bob Filner was fed up.

For 20 years, the Democratic congressman from California heard promises from Department of Veterans Affairs officials they would fix the long backlog of disability claims, and their excuses when they failed.

Billions of dollars had been spent, but the problem just got worse.

"Who is responsible?" Filner, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, demanded at a hearing last June. "Who didn't do their job?"

Nothing much has changed since Filner's rant, except he left Congress and was elected mayor of San Diego.

Breaking the backlog was a top priority of retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki when he became VA secretary in 2009. He vowed every claim would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.

By his own measures, Shinseki is failing. In 2009, it took an average of 161 days for the VA to determine whether the veteran is entitled to monthly payments for service-connected injuries or medical conditions and, if so, how much.

The average today is 273 days. VA's claimed accuracy rate is slightly better at 86 percent than it was in 2009.

More than 70 percent of all benefits claims take more than 125 days to rate. In January 2010, only about 38 percent of claims lingered beyond the VA's own arbitrary deadline.

Making America’s Heroes Wait
A Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative series on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ broken promises to U.S. military veterans.
Monday: Vets trapped in endless VA bureaucracy
Tuesday: Critics, IG say VA cooks claims books
Yesterday: Vets face lies, damn lies and VA statistics
Today: Claims backlog not our fault, VA officials say
Coming tomorrow: Claims backlog grows despite parade of VA ‘solutions’
Read the entire series at this link

The VA's budget this year is $140 billion, an increase of more than 50 percent since 2008. There are more than 14,500 VA employees processing disability and pension claims this year, an increase of 3,200 since 2008.

VA officials say numbers are driving the backlog. In the last three years, VA has processed more than 3.1 million claims, but almost 3.6 million new claims were filed, according to agency records.

Claims also are more complex now, with veterans seeking compensation for multiple factors instead of just one or two in past years, according to the agency.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the numbers aren't all bad. It's good that a million veterans a year get new benefits, he said. The time it takes them to qualify is not.

"I think it's an insult to people to have to wait for years in order to get their benefits processed," said Sanders, who said he will convene committee hearings on the issue next month.

The backlog also grew in 2010 when more than a third of all claims raters were diverted to process a quarter million high-priority cases involving Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange. Those claims have all been cleared.

Veterans groups and congressional critics do not blame Shinseki, who inherited the backlog, but they add that he hasn't fixed it, either.

What VA needs is accountability, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Agency workers know how hard it is to fire a federal employee, Miller said.

Regional office managers who consistently fail to meet standards are far more likely to be transferred than fired, he said.

"The bureaucrats will be around a lot longer than their leaders will," Miller said. "I have seen time and time again within the VA that when somebody should be removed from the system, they are just moved in the system to another place, another part of the country. If it was me, I would be going to every single VA office in the country and making them shake in their boots that their jobs are not safe."

Diana Rubens, deputy VA undersecretary for field operations, said her department has fired, demoted or transferred bad regional directors and front-line claims-raters, but she refused to say how many or provide other details, citing privacy concerns.

VA "takes seriously the need to hold folks accountable, whether that's from the director level or the technician level," Rubens said. "We have new directors or entire management teams in those (poor performing) regional offices because we recognized that we needed to bring stronger leadership in there."

VA officials refused repeated requests for a detailed interview. Rubens briefly answered questions from The Washington Examiner after a recent congressional hearing.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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