WASHINGTON — After years of quiet stagnation, the veterans benefits claim backlog has finally caught Congress’ attention.
On Wednesday afternoon, leaders from the Senate Appropriations committee vowed close oversight of the backlog problem in coming months after a summit earlier in the day that summoned the secretaries of defense and veterans affairs to Capitol Hill.
Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., told reporters that both agencies have been given funding and time to tackle the problem. “Now they have to use it the right way to shrink the backlog,” she said.
It was a high-profile news conference on an issue the committee hasn’t typically dwelled upon in the past. In recent months, a number of congressional panels beyond the veterans-specific committees have begun to weigh in on the claims backlog problem, promising to ensure that returning war heroes get the benefits they deserve.
Early in the day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a team of fellow Democrats introduced a slate of legislation to deal with the problem. House Speaker John Boehner has addressed the issue on several occasions in recent weeks, along with other members typically not heavily involved in veterans issues.
Wednesday’s flurry of Capitol Hill backlog news came amid a pushback from VA officials designed to prove they are on track to fix the problem by their 2015 goal.
Veterans groups and veteran lawmakers, who have been tracking the issue for years, have been confused but optimistic with the recent spate of national attention on the ongoing problem.
The claims backlog has been on a steady trend downward since March, when the number of cases pending for more than four months peaked above 600,000. This week, department officials said the number of backlogged cases had dropped to below 560,000, an eight-month low.
Still, benefits workers take almost nine months on average to complete a claim, well above the four-month promise outlined by department leaders.
House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, called the recent downward trend encouraging, but noted that “at the current rate, the 2015 goal … seems to be unlikely.”
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated their promise to solve the processing snafus and vowed their departments were on the right track.
“The backlog is not and has never been acceptable,” Shinseki told reporters. “We are aggressively executing a plan to eliminate it.”
On Tuesday, VA officials announced a new partnership with the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans to troubleshoot its processing of fully developed claims — cases where outside veterans advocates certify the benefits paperwork has been completed.
The new collaboration is designed to identify potential slowdowns in the program due to minor errors by the outside advocates or claims processors. Department officials hope to significantly boost the number of fully developed claims in coming months, since those cases average less than four months from start to finish.
VA leaders also just announced mandatory overtime for claims workers this summer; new provisional decisions for claims pending for more than a year; and new back-end technology designed to cut down on review time and mistakes.
All the announcements came after several weeks of harsh criticism by lawmakers and the national media about the lack of progress by the department on the problem, which has seen some veterans waiting years for compensation.
House Republicans questioned whether any of the new initiatives are systemic fixes or simply gimmicks designed to provide some short-term publicity victories. They have maintained that the department needs sweeping cultural changes to address the backlog problem.
“VA must not shift resources and manpower away from processing new claims just to clear out older ones,” said House Veteran Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. “Every veteran deserves a thorough, fair and timely evaluation of their claim, regardless of when it was filed.”
Last month, amid blame that Pentagon record-sharing processes were adding to the slowdown, Hagel promised a 30-day review of the department’s long-term data management plans.
VA officials had hoped the review would persuade Pentagon leaders to adopt the same VistA health records system the VA uses, for simplicity. On Wednesday, Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said that better records sharing was one of two key fixes that could dramatically reduce the time that claims processing takes.
But a few hours later, defense officials announced they would not change from their earlier plans to have an open competition for their future health records system, giving no real edge to the VA’s legacy system.
Defense Undersecretary for Technology Frank Kendall dismissed the idea that the move was a slight toward the VA: “We don’t need to use the same email systems in order to email each other.”
Lawmakers sent a letter this week to President Barack Obama — the third recent high-profile petition by Congress on the issue — asking that he “end the back and forth amongst DOD and VA regarding the virtual lifetime electronic record.” House members said the country can “no longer waste time or money” on the issue.
Obama has stayed out of much of the debate, offering only assurances through staff that he is tracking the issue and confident that both departments are on the right path. Lawmakers have asked for more involvement from the commander in chief, to add attention and urgency to the issue.
Mikulski promised that the first appropriations bill passed by her committee this year would be the VA budget, “to show our commitment to veterans.” She also demanded regular progress updates from both departments in the months to come, promising continued attention on the backlog.