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Topics: Veterans Affairs

UPDATED! House Speaker John Boehner challenges VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on veterans claims delays

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House Speaker John Boehner slammed the slow pace at which the Department of Veterans Affairs processes disability claims as "an underwhelming performance" and a disservice to veterans in a letter to Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Boehner pointed out that, despite promises to break the backlog of claims made by Shinseki when he took office in 2009, the problem keeps getting worse. Veterans are waiting longer for a decision and claims raters at VA are making too many mistakes, Boehner said.

The speaker's criticisms echo the findings of The Washington Examiner's own investigation that found high error rates and low accountability at VA often force veterans into a years-long quagmire to be awarded the benefits they earned because of injuries or illnesses caused by their military service.

More than 1 million veterans have VA claims or appeals pending.

"Regardless of how we parse the numbers, there is a backlog; it is too big, and veterans are waiting too long for decisions," Boehner said in the Feb. 20, 2012, letter.

"In the four years you have served as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the benefit delivery system has not shown any noticeable improvement and America's veterans have yet to receive the VA service they deserve.

"Despite your transformation efforts, the compensation claims backlog remains alarmingly high and our veterans continue to have their benefit access stifled by a broken system."

Shinseki vowed that all VA claims will be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. But since he made that pledge in 2009, waits have grown longer and the percentage of cases that have dragged beyond the 125-day deadline has increased, despite billions of dollars and thousands of new claims processors pumped into the agency in the last four years.

In 2009, it took about 161 days for an initial claim rating, which determines whether the veteran qualifies for disability payments and, if so, how much. It now takes about 273 days - nine months - to rate a claim. Appeals typically add four to five years before a case is resolved.

About 70 percent of all claims have lingered beyond the 125-day deadline for a rating decision. Reported accuracy is about 86.3 percent.

The Washington Examiner investigation found VA officials have skewed numbers on speed and accuracy to make it appear they are processing claims more quickly and accurately than they really are.

The agency's inspector general has consistently found error rates higher than those reported in official figures when it has reviewed high-risk claims in the VA's 57 regional offices.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told The Washinton Examiner he will make breaking the claims backlog and improving mental health for veterans the committee's top priorities this year.

Miller is particularly troubled by the “high turnover and lack of accountability among some poorly performing employees and management” at VA, he told The Washington Examiner today.

“This has a direct negative impact on office productivity and morale, leading to slower processing times,” he said.

 This week, the veterans committees in both the House and Senate will hold joint hearings to take testimony from veterans' service organizations that assist those with claims pending at the VA.

While the hearings are not specifically on disability claims, the backlog typically is the main complaint with the VA that veterans' groups raise in congressional testimony.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate veterans committee, plans hearings on the claims backlog next month, though a spokesman said the date and details have not been finalized.

Boehner's letter focuses largely on the Cleveland regional office, where it takes an average of 334 days, more than 11 months, for an initial rating, as well as the failure to improve things nationally.

"VA is still falling short of its goals and the nation's expectations," he wrote.

VA officials did not respond to requests for comment.

UPDATE: A VA spokeswoman said Boehner’s letter is being reviewed and agency officials are preparing a formal response.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team.

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