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Report: VA not doing enough on claims backlog

WASHINGTON — Baltimore tops a list of the slowest VA offices for responding to veterans disability claims, while Providence, R.I., is at the opposite end of the spectrum, processing claims almost five times faster, according to a new report from a Senate working group.

The report, released Wednesday, was prepared by the bipartisan group VA Claims Backlog Working Group, and endorsed by the group’s five Republican and four Democratic senators, who also proposed legislation based on the findings to improve veterans’ education about the claims process and increase interagency cooperation.

“The red tape our veterans face is unacceptable, and until the backlog is eliminated, I won’t back down,” the working group’s co-chairman, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said in a statement.

The backlog is a problem Congress has been grappling with for decades, yet about 188,000 claims — roughly 40 percent of all ongoing claims — have been pending more than 125 days. As the VA has reduced their claims backlog, the backlog of appeals has grown, leading critics to claim the VA is simply denying more claims so they can be marked as resolved and dealing with them on appeal instead. The problem was put back in the spotlight with a recent VA Inspector General’s report that revealed employees at the Philadelphia VA Regional Office were ignoring boxes of correspondence related to claims — sometimes for years.

“The supposed progress being reported by the VA on the benefits backlogs is a classic shell game,” said Dan Caldwell, legislative and political director for the conservative veterans group Concerned Veterans for America, ​in a written response to the report.

In response to Stripes' questions, the VA released a fact sheet about the appeals process and did not directly address the report or criticism that they are denying appeals in order to improve backlog numbers. The statement said they are focused on the goal of eliminating the backlog by the end of 2015.

“We would reserve comment on the specific recommendations of the report until it has been thoroughly reviewed,” the statement said. “Regarding the backlog, VA achieved significant milestones in 2014 that created momentum toward accomplishing the goal of processing all disability compensation claims within 125 days in 2015.”

VA gets credit in the report for making improvements in claim processing but criticism for not going far enough.

“The current backlog breaks the sacred oath the United States made to our brave men and women when they joined the military,” the report said. “It is our duty to take care of them if they incur a service-connected disability.”

The report also pointed the finger at other federal agencies, especially the Department of Defense, for slow responses to VA requests for records crucial to processing claims. The group recommends a 30-day deadline for agencies to respond to such requests and create liaisons to work between the agencies on claims.

The worst regional offices, by average time taken to process each claim, were:

  • Baltimore, 280.6 days
  • Jackson, Miss., 270.8 days
  • Reno, Nev., 257.9 days

And the best:

  • Providence, 60.4 days
  • Fort Harrison, Mont.,103.9 days
  • Lincoln, Neb.,118.8 days

(See more in the table at the end of the story.)

Personal examples in the report of veterans who have grappled with the backlog include:

  • A Marine who lost an eye and use of his right arm and leg from an IED explosion waited more than 18 months for compensation.
  • A woman who flew a Black Hawk helicopter and was involved in a crash that resulted in a broken back and a spinal fusion was forced to wait more than nine months to be awarded her claim.

Among the recommendations of the report are providing increased education to veterans on the claims process, improved transparency and accountability for VA managers, and better interagency cooperation to share records necessary to process claims.

“In order to make sure our veterans receive the care that they need and deserve, the VA must continue to adapt reforms that will allow the VA to run more efficiently and effectively,” Working Group member Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a statement.

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

Wait times at Veterans Affairs Regional Offices

Wait times, shown here in average days, cover the 2015 fiscal year to date.

Ten best   Ten worst  
1. Providence, R.I. 60.4 1. Baltimore 280.6
2. Fort Harrison, Mont. 103.9 2. Jackson, Miss. 270.8
3. Lincoln, Neb. 118.8 3. Reno, Nev. 257.9
4. Togus, Maine 121.3 4. Philadelphia 249.7
5. Cheyenne, Wyo. 138.2 5. Los Angeles 244.7
6. Fargo, N.D. 141.1 6. Chicago 244.1
7. Seattle 142.7 7. Oakland, Calif. 240.5
8. Sioux Falls, S.D. 147.4 8. Indianapolis 236.7
9. Salt Lake City, Utah 148.3 9. Boston 235.1
10. Boise, Idaho 151.1 10. St. Petersburg, Fla. 231.2

Source: VA Claims Backlog Working Group 2015 Report
 

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