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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Skeptical senators press evasive VA official on benefits claims backlog

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Photo - Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, pressed a senior Department of Veterans Affairs executive today about discrepancies between official claims and the government's own data on the growing backlog of unprocessed benefit claims filed by veterans. (AP Photo)
Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, pressed a senior Department of Veterans Affairs executive today about discrepancies between official claims and the government's own data on the growing backlog of unprocessed benefit claims filed by veterans. (AP Photo)
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A top Department of Veterans Affairs executive touted the agency's openness and accountability at a Senate hearing Wednesday, but then refused to respond directly to a senator's request for performance measures and later hurried away from the committee room while ignoring reporters' questions.

Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits at the VA, told the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs that the agency is undergoing a transformation in which accuracy is prized and the long delays veterans face in having their disability claims processed will soon begin to shorten.

But Hickey was challenged by the committee's top Republican, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who said that by virtually all measures VA's performance is getting worse.

For example, it takes longer to rate a claim and resolve an appeal that it did four years ago, Burr said, citing VA figures.

Accuracy rates have not improved, holding steady at about 86 percent since 2008. About 70 percent of all claims in the system have lingered longer than 125 days, a self-imposed point at which VA officials consider them "backlogged." A year ago about 66.4 percent of claims were backlogged.

"It almost makes me embarrassed to ask questions that deal with facts," Burr said in questioning Hickey's claim that VA can meet its goal of rating all disability claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.

"I'm looking at the trend lines as it relates to disability claims that quite frankly are just inconsistent," he said.

Burr asked if Hickey would submit internal monthly reports on how well the department is meeting its performance standards, something Hickey said is tracked daily, weekly and monthly.

Hickey evaded the question, so Burr repeated it.

"We are actually transparent to a fault," Hickey then said, citing data posted on the VA website and published in quarterly reports to Congress. She still did not answer Burr's question.

After a few more rounds without any clear commitment from Hickey, Burr seemed to give up.

"I'll take that as a no then," he said.

"Thank you senator," Hickey replied.

Burr later said he would attempt to "fence off" money going to VA's headquarters to pressure the agency to release the information.

Hickey was even less forthcoming when reporters tried to question her about why VA statistics on disability claims show things are getting worse even as she told the Senate committee things are improving.

Following the end of her testimony, multiple VA staffers surrounded Hickey as she rushed out of the Russell Senate Office Building, ignoring questions from two reporters about her testimony.

At one point, she said interviews should be arranged through a VA press aide. The Washington Examiner has repeatedly requested an interview with Hickey in recent months, but none have been granted.

Earlier this year, The Washington Examiner published a multi-part series entitled "Making America's Heroes Wait" that exposed ways agency employees manipulate internal data to make it appear more claims are being processed faster than is actually the case.

Burr was not alone in his skepticism that the backlog would soon start coming down because of the new initiatives Hickey outlined, including a $537 million computer system to allow documents to be stored and retrieved electronically.

"We've heard the potential for success so many times without seeing the results," said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska., said that the VA's own numbers show "it's not getting better."

Hickey blamed much of the claims backlog on an application surge in recent years. VA claims processors have rated more than 3 million cases in the last three years but about 3.6 million new ones were filed, she said.

New initiatives and better training have improved processing times and accuracy where they are being phased in, Hickey said. Internal data to back those claims is what Burr was seeking.

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

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Mark Flatten

Senior Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner