WASHINGTON — VA Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged Tuesday that his department will make progress toward ending the benefits backlog this year. House and Senate leaders promised to tackle the issue in upcoming hearings. Veterans groups are lobbying lawmakers this week on the depth of the problem.
But exactly how anyone can fix the mounting headache remains unclear.
As of last week, the benefits backlog – the number of claims pending for more than 125 days – sat above 600,000 cases, up about 7 percent from a year ago. The average claim takes about 270 days to process.
Department officials have offered a host of solutions over the last year, but have no positive trend to show for it. More claims adjusters, different processing methods and closer coordination with veterans groups have yet to pull down the overdue case numbers.
In a speech before leaders of the American Legion on Tuesday, Shinseki said that the VA has processed more than 4.1 million claims in the last four years, a figure unmatched in department history.
The problem is that VA offices took in 4.6 million claims over that same period, rendering the quicker processing moot.
The VA secretary told veterans advocates that much of the delay – up to 200 days of that 270-day wait – is spent trying to collect information from the Internal Revenue Service, defense department files and physicians outside the department. Improving VA internal procedures can only speed up the process so much, he said.
Still, Shinseki told the crowd that the department is on track to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2015.
“We intend … to end this backlog that has built up over the decades,” he said.
Skeptics aren’t so sure.
After Shinseki’s remarks, House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Florida, said the VA needs clearer plans to eliminate the backlog, and that “merely stating overly optimistic projections doesn’t help veterans.”
He took aim at VA bureaucrats, saying that a “small contingent of problematic employees” have moved between regional offices, creating more problems than they have solved. Legion members applauded his call for more accountability among underperforming VA staffers, who he blamed for a lax culture among many claims processing units.
Earlier in the day, Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, pinned the problem on outdated paper records and the lack of seamless sharing among VA and other federal agencies.
He praised department employees – “The VA does a lot of stuff, and does it very well” – but said officials must find quick solutions to the claims backlog.
“An already overwhelmed, broken claims system is no way to welcome our heroes home,” he said.
Legion leaders will spend the rest of this week speaking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, pushing for backlog solutions and more VA oversight among other topics. Veterans advocates will take to congressional offices throughout the spring on similar lobbying efforts, also with the backlog as a key talking point.
Meanwhile, Shinseki said he expects the department’s newest effort, a rollout of the Veterans Benefits Management System to all regional offices, to start pulling down the backlog in coming months. Miller and Sanders said their committees will be watching the progress closely.