According to a veterans group representing the latest generation of war fighters, as the Obama administration races to address a long-standing case of backlogged claims, they should put focus on quality as much as quantity in reviewing veterans’ disability claims. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America released a report on Monday containing their examinations of the massive claims inventory and how the government should address it. In the report, the group offered a list of recommendations to improve the claims process, both in quantity and quality. Some of the ideas ranged from standardizing forms to considering the use of clinicians outside the Department of Veterans Affairs to assess individuals who file for benefits.
According to VA figures, back in March of 2013, the number of cases pending for more than 125 days reached an all-time high of 600,000. During a period of severe criticism that followed the release of those numbers, the VA launched an array of initiatives. This number also sparked the Obama administration to set a goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015, implementing a VA overtime “surge” in May to deal with the issue, making overtime mandatory for claims processors. The VA also installed an automated processing system and tackled the oldest cases first.
Within eight months, the VA decreased the backlog by more than a third, down to 400,000 cases. The number of cases has continued to drop thanks to the hard work of claims processors, decreasing by nearly 37 percent since last March. But as the VA pushes to get rid of the backlog, another problem arises as appeals are stacking up.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said, in their recent report, “Efforts to decrease the backlog have had an unintended effect on the number of claims pending appeal. The need for more staff to review backlogged claims was satisfied in part by redistributing staff normally designated to work on appeals.” The group continued to say that the VA could reduce its appeals numbers through improved accuracy and by reviewing the effectiveness of its processes.
Former Army captain and Iraq War veteran Tom Tarantino, who Is currently an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America chief policy officer, stated, “We’re concerned that these initiatives (to end the backlog) aren’t sufficiently tracked in terms of cost and benefit. What that leads to is a lack of clarity as to whether they (the VA) can get rid of the backlog.”
In December, Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits administration, testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on the improvements the VA has made. She stated that the agency had improved its claims accuracy from 83 percent to 90 percent since the summer of 2011.
The veterans group continued in their report to name other ways the VA could do things better. The group said that the VA should also try to create a joint program with the Defense Department. This would allow the two agencies to expedite record-sharing, in addition to the VA being able to anticipate and plan for future needs of the veterans coming in. The joint program could also provide feedback that is much sought after by the VA on how to improve the VA’s automated systems.
The report from the group states, “The backlog may end in FY 2015, but the disability-compensation process will continue. If the VA does not learn from its mistakes, it is bound to repeat them.”
In a statement also released on Monday, the VA said that it largely concurs with the analysis. The agency said, “Many of the recommendations of this report are consistent with our goals … and reflect action already taken or underway. We will continue to work with our partners and stakeholders to execute our plan to end the backlog.” The VA called the report a part of its continued collaboration with veterans groups and said it continues working aggressively to try to end the backlog in 2015.
“We have made strong progress, and we know there is more work to do,” said Drew Brookie, VA press secretary.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised that his attention would remain on the VA’s caseload. “We’ll keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned, and our wounded warriors receive the health care – including the mental health care – that they need,” he said.