A year since the backlog of disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs peaked last year at over 611,000, the VA has come out and said that the Backlog is down by 44%, meaning that *only* 344,000 claims are considered backlogged. While the decrease is certainly an accomplishment, the remaining number of claims is still a cause for concern. According to the VA, the accuracy of claim decisions being made on the first go-around is also improving. The backlog has decreased by more than 267,000 claims in the past year, but can the VA keep their promise to have the backlog eliminated completely by 2015? Well, on average, veterans are currently waiting 119 days less, on average, to get their claim decision than they were a year ago. Considering that a claim enters the backlog when it becomes 125 days old, and the VA has cut the average wait time by 119 days and we still have more than half the backlog, it seems there’s plenty of fat to cut off, so to speak.
“No veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits. Through a combination of transformation initiatives and the hard work of our employees, we are making significant progress toward our goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “We still have more work to do, and no one is more committed than our Veterans Benefits Administration employees, over half of whom are veterans themselves.” This statement by Eric Shinseki implies that the VA is optimistic about their goal, and provides good reason to believe, since much of the VA is made up of veterans working for the good of other veterans. As has been the case for a while, most of the legitimate criticism towards the VA has not been at how they are cleaning up the mess, but how they let the mess happen in the first place. The most common question is why weren’t measures taken years ago to prevent the backlog from occurring in the first place?
In March 2011, the backlog spiked significantly when a decision was made to reopen 150,000 cases that involved claims related to the exposure of Agent Orange, a Vietnam-era defoliant. The reopening of these cases was mandatory based on the decision of the Nehmer court. This mandate came shortly after Shinseki made the decision to add a number of diseases including ischemic heart disease, some types of leukemias, and Parkinson’s disease to the list of diseases that may be associated with exposure to Agent Orange. Adding these diseases to the list of Agent Orange-associated diseases added another 100,000 cases to the stack, because of the number of veterans that were now eligible to receive benefits. Shinseki made it clear that they knew that adding these claims would make things difficult at the VA for some time, but said that it was the right thing to do. While no one could fault Shinseki for accepting the cases or disagree that it was the right thing to do, one could still ask why there weren’t any “transformation initiatives” as soon as they knew they were about to have to deal with 250,000 extra claims in addition to their normal workload?
In 2010, the VA
set a goal to have every disability claim processed within 125 days with a 98% accuracy level. Since then, the VA has revolutionized their system to cut out paper claims and begin processing the claims electronically. This is a fantastic idea, so fantastic that most would put it in the category of common sense. While the old adage of “better late than never” definitely applies here, why was the VA still doing hard-copy processing in 2010? Why did it take them 20ish years and a very large amount of bad publicity to decide to implement an electronic system of processing claims? The VA is also boasting of their increases to productivity because they’ve upped their training and “streamlined business processes”. While these changes are also definitely for the better, they do not answer the question of, “what about 5 years ago? 10 years ago?”
A veteran’s experience in filing a claim with the VA is improving, yes, and could even be said to be improving dramatically, but everything the VA is doing could have been done much more efficiently and cheaper before the fact. Our tax dollars are going towards paying mandatory overtime for VA employees when they would not have had to if the VA had made common sense changes before the backlog ever got so large. In this author’s opinion, we are looking at one of the biggest problems with large government: in the private sector, any company that performed as poorly as the VA would have gone out of business and made way for a company that could do it better for cheaper, but instead our only weapons are bad publicity and comments on a website.