Monday, May 20, 2013
WASHINGTON -- House lawmakers grilled a top Veterans Affairs official Wednesday on the Obama administration's plan to address the growing bureaucratic bottleneck facing veterans who are seeking disability benefits.
Staff file photo
Roughly 70 percent of the 896,000 claims pending with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been in the pipeline for more than the 125 days that the VA set as its goal post.
Since 2011, the average processing time nationwide has increased from 182 days to 279 days, while many veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan face delays ranging from 300 to nearly 650 days, depending on where they live.
While the situation at Maine's Togus regional office near Augusta is better than most VA facilities -- with 30 percent of claims taking longer than 125 days to process -- members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said the overall situation was unacceptable.
"The VA's demonstrated history shows its inability or refusal to forecast problems and anticipate its needs, and the only people paying the price for the failure of the VA are the veterans," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman. "The time for excuses is over."
Miller and Maine's Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, convened Wednesday's hearing during a week that saw the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. With U.S. combat operations in Iraq complete and the draw-down of troops from Afghanistan, the VA is processing record numbers of disability compensation claims but has struggled to keep pace.
"It's an old adage that a benefit delayed is a benefit denied," Michaud said. "Far too many veterans are waiting far too many days to receive the benefits they have earned."
Allison Hickey, a retired brigadier general who is the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said her department remains committed to the goal of processing all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. And the new, entirely online claims filing and tracking system being phased in this spring will go a long way toward speeding up the process, Hickey told the committee.
"None of us at the VA find it acceptable ... that it takes too long to get a veteran an answer on their claim," Hickey said. "But we are well on our way and on a path" to reducing the backlog.
The Togus facility that serves Maine veterans ranks among the more efficient of the VA's regional offices. According to figures supplied by Michaud's office, Togus processed roughly 70 percent of claims within a 125-day window and had a 96 percent accuracy rate during the past three months. However, that still leaves more than 411 veterans whose claims have been pending for 125 days or longer.
The most serious backlogs are concentrated in metropolitan areas. In Los Angeles, for instance, the average processing time was 506 days -- compared to roughly 125 at Togus -- and roughly 80 percent were pending more than 125 days. Other facilities where average waits exceeded 300 days were in Baltimore, Phoenix, Reno, Nev., Oakland, Calif., and Waco, Texas.
Michaud said afterward that he believes Togus benefits from lower employee turnover, which means there are more experienced staff available to handle complicated claims.
During the hearing, Michaud recommended that the VA consider breaking up more complex applications seeking claims for multiple medical conditions. The more complicated conditions -- such as traumatic brain injury, or TBI -- could be sent to more experienced and proficient staff members at Togus or other high-performing facilities, he said.
"That is exactly part of the look we are taking from a strategy perspective," Hickey said told Michaud. "By 2015 when we are completely paperless ... we will have the ability to know who the best people across the country are who do TBI, who do (post-traumatic stress disorder), that do diabetes, that do Parkinson's."
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